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date: 23 April 2019

Slavery in the South African Interior During the 19th Century

Summary and Keywords

The South African interior, roughly equivalent to the Highveld on the southern continental plateau, was in the 19th century a stage of numerous players and groups, acting in concert and in conflict with one another, as often dissolving as taking on board new members. The fortunes of Highveld inhabitants, occupiers, and passers-by fluctuated without periods of calm, and turned advantages to few. It was therefore not uncommon for the human flotsam and jetsam created by raiding, battles, and migrations, aggravated by drought and famine, to be subordinated by the survivors and forced to serve those with whom they had no prior allegiance or knowledge. Slavery in the interior was largely a by-product of staking out territory. Rather than generate slaves for sale in an external market, slavery on the Highveld was fed by the political impulse to aggregate followers and servants. An internal exchange emerged in some areas, and traders made a few transactions with coastal exporters, but the general pattern of enslavement was acquisition by raiding and distribution among raiders. The majority taken were youngsters and, to a lesser degree, women. As a rule, the menfolk were killed.

Keywords: apprenticeship, Boer, commando, Dutch-speaking, inboekelinge, inboekstelsel, Sotho/Tswana-speaking, South African Republic (ZAR), trans-Orangia, Trekkers

The Setting

The stage on which enslavement occurred was a vast, undulating grassland interspersed with waterways in the southern Highveld that originated in the Drakensberg Mountains and fed the Orange (Gariep) River coursing west to the Atlantic (see Figure 1). The northern Highveld, roughly north of the Vaal (Lekwa, Liqua) tributary to the Orange, was bordered by the Limpopo (Odi) River, circling north then southeast toward the Indian Ocean and whose tributaries drained a series of hill ranges stretching from present-day Mahikeng east-northeast via Tshwane to Polokwane and Makhado. Average rainfall on the Highveld ranged from under eight inches in the western Karoo-Kalahari to thirty-two inches on the plains and hills adjacent the Drakensberg Even the higher rainfall areas were subject to extreme summer temperatures and drought. Over the entire region in the 1800s, roughly two out of every five years were marked by inadequate rains. Where rainfall was higher on average, its inhabitants practiced agriculture alongside animal husbandry, growing mostly millet, sorghum, pulses, and melons—crops that could survive below-average rainfall. All Highveld dwellers nevertheless pinned their survival on their herds, principally cattle, along with sheep and goats, and on the hunt. The Highveld teemed with game, which provided meat (dried for preservation) and furs and skins to adorn the inhabitants and enable them to withstand the cold winters in this sub-Capricorn terrain. Trade in iron and copper manufactures and beads, along with intermarriages, linked communities of diverse origins and membership.

Slavery in the South African Interior During the 19th CenturyClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Highveld.

Courtesy of the author.

At the turn of the 19th century, communities established on the Highveld were competing for these resources in ways that had begun to unsettle broad areas. The causes of discord are unknown but, given the fragility of much of the Highveld climate, drought and famine were the likely drivers. Back-and-forth cattle raiding disturbed Setswana speakers in the northwest and created offshoots who migrated south toward the Orange. A form of militarization gave rise to powerful chiefdoms among the Setswana speakers of the present-day Magaliesberg and southern Botswana, as well as among Northern Sesotho (Sepedi) speakers in the Soutpansberg and Blouberg. Some chiefdoms, like the Kwena Makau of Kgaswane, were stable and built sizable stone-wall capitals for thousands of adherents, because they were situated in well-watered areas with rich soil. But in the southern Highveld, particularly in the drier trans-Orangia region, slave raiders making their way out of the Cape were already targeting communities.

One of the driving forces in introducing slavery into the interior were the Dutch-speaking sheep and cattle farmers and poor itinerant herding families on the Cape frontier. Of modest means and disconnected from the plantation slave-labor system anchored at the Cape, these farmers (Boers) and itinerants (Trekboers) met their sizable need for labor by enslaving the indigenous Khoekhoen (Khoi, also called Hottentots) and San (bushmen), usually acquired in commando raids with the connivance of officials. Neither had a defense against commando firearms and horses. “They were driven out of their own country,” remarked John Barrow in 1801, “their children seized and carried into slavery.”1 When passing through Boer and Trekboer territory in November 1804, Henry Lichtenstein observed in the Little Roggeveld near present-day Calvinia that children and female slaves were used in manufacturing sheep-fat-based soap, which sold handsomely at the Cape.2 As they moved across the Cape border into the interior, farmers’ labor demands were met increasingly by Dutch-speaking communities of mixed descent based in trans-Orangia, who captured children from San and Setswana speakers and traded them to the farmers and Trekboers initially for cattle and later for guns, shot, and horses.

This pattern of slave raiding across the Cape frontier continued into the early decades of the 19th century without becoming a slave-trading system. Until the late 1820s, few of the communities were strong enough to control any portion of the southern Highveld for an extended period. Recurrent episodes of drought intensified competition for territory and visited famine on the weak. Pawning of children was not unknown. Raids for stock became endemic and generated young captives who could be exchanged for horses and guns in the Cape. Beginning in the mid-1820s and continuing for a decade, widespread insecurity on the southern Highveld was exacerbated by the predations of so-called Mantatee marauders churned up by migrations out of Kwa Zulu Natal, and followed by the peripatetic Kololo and Ndebele who decimated Tswana from the northern Highveld into the Kalahari. Not until the 1830s did the Cape frontier and trans-Orangia assume a more orderly state, when mixed communities such as the Griqua and Korana stabilized and resumed trading with the Cape. Before their interest turned to obtaining ivory from the Kalahari region, however, various subgroups indulged in raiding. When missionaries Thomas Arbousset and François Daumas passed through the present-day northern Cape in 1836, they were told by the Dighoya of Makuana of the attacks made on them by Piet Witvoet’s Korana, “from which he has taken away in succession their herds of oxen, of sheep, and of goats, their millet, their maize, and even their children, to procure in exchange for those little slaves, powder, and brandy from the cape farmers, or from the smousen, or travelling dealers, who engage in such traffic.”3 White farmers on the Cape frontier were also raiding for stock and children among the Sotho.

The tipping point for slavery’s full-fledged advance into the Highveld interior was the piecemeal exodus of Boer families from the Cape by groups of white Dutch-speaking, slave-owning emigrants. Starting in 1834, with departures peaking two years later, this large-scale movement extended first into Natal before ultimately resettling most Boer families in present-day Orange Free State, North West, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga. Known in popular histories as “VoorTrekkers” and their combined exodus from the Cape as the “Great Trek,” these parties of emigrants initiated a contest for control over the interior and its inhabitants that continued to the end of the century, and they pursued their goal in part with slave raids and inboekstelsel (literally, system of booking-in), an institutionalized form of slavery.

Slave Raiding: The Early Phase

The Trekkers lacked self-government beyond the loyalty of several families to a male leader, and most were illiterate and poor. The people and cattle they encountered on the southern Highveld attracted their avarice, and the guns, wagons, and horses they used to intrude gave the Trekkers the means to steal thousands of head and the youngsters to herd them. When these family groups combined for warfare, they proved formidable. The Trekkers realized soon enough that indigenous Highvelders were ready to team up with them to drive out erstwhile enemies and recover purloined cattle. Foremost among the common enemies were the Ndebele of Mzilikazi, based in the northern Highveld but whose amabutho (regiments) had driven Sotho and Tswana speakers south out of the area to huddle at Thaba Nchu. And the Ndebele stood in the way of various horse-mounted, gun-carrying groups wanting to tap the ivory fields of the Kalahari. These Griqua, Bastaards, Bergenaar, and Kora spoke both Dutch and indigenous Khoe and were often of mixed descent. Without firearms, Mzilikazi had been stung by a Bergenaar attack and quickly apprehended the Trekker threat. In August 1836, his amabutho attempted a preemptive strike at Vegkop, where Trekkers with their wagons drawn up in defense repulsed them at great loss. Their superior firepower now on display, within weeks the Trekkers had followers aplenty to launch an attack on Mzilikazi’s northern Highveld capital at Mosega (near present-day Zeerust). Under Hendrik Potgieter and Gerrit Maritz, a Trekker force of a mere one hundred or so was guided and augmented by hundreds of Kora, Rolong, Taung, Hurutshe, Tlokwa, and Griqua. In January 1837 they struck Mosega.

Mzilikazi’s rout at Mosega and subsequent relocation further north altered the terms of territorial competition. Many Sotho-Tswana began vacating the southern Highveld to return to their home territories in the present-day Zeerust-Mahikeng areas. Others who had previously perched on the fringes of present-day Rustenburg-Magaliesberg trickled back to their old haunts, while small parties of Trekkers moved north of the Vaal to seek trade connections with the Portuguese. Meanwhile, in the southern Highveld, remnant and incoming Trekker families began to stake out large tracts to graze their herds, raid their African neighbors for cattle and children, and encroach on the territories of established communities such as Mosheshewe’s Sotho and Sekonyela’s Tlokwa. Attempts to force their way into Natal ended with the annihilation of Piet Retief’s party in February 1838 at Mgungundlhovu by Dingane’s Zulu, followed days later by bloody attacks on Trekker encampments across the Thukela River in which hundreds died.

Anchored for a time in southern Highveld, Trekkers organized commando raids against the vulnerable. Their nemesis Dingane was among their targets, and in 1840, four hundred Trekkers joined Dingane’s rival, Mpande to launch a devastating raid “with the intention and for the sole purpose of carrying off children.” The raid netted four hundred youngsters.4 At the time, John Philip of the London Missionary Society alleged that “not only has an active slave-trade been carried on among the Boers in Natal … but it is well known that an active trade in children has been carried on between them and the Boers … from the Vaal River to the borders of the Colony.”5

The Trekkers moved into the niches of a territory elsewhere beyond their control. To the west, they dared not challenge Kora and Griqua armed horsemen, who were formidable raiders in their own right, frequently seizing cattle, sheep, and goats from their neighbors. To their east the Trekkers were boxed in by the Maluti range of the Drakensburgs, where Moshoeshoe’s Sotho had acquired guns and horses, too, in order to defend themselves and conduct punitive raids against smaller raiding groups, such as Sekonyela’s Tlokwa, likewise armed. This disquieted region eventually drew in the British, who declared it a sovereignty in name, but without the means to impose their authority. They recruited Trekkers to join commandos against recalcitrant groups, but the Trekkers demanded booty in children as the price of their participation. After joining Bloemfontein’s Major Henry Warden’s attack on the Thembu in 1851, the Trekkers came back with sixty children. In the words of Volksraad member Joseph Orpen, “The Free State government is too weak to suppress [slavery as a domestic institution], though it makes a show of doing so, and, therefore, connives at it.”6

Orpen was referring to inboekstelsel (literally, indentureship), the Dutch term for a system that the British called “apprenticeship.” Derived from practices in the Cape, inboekstelsel placed youngsters in custody up to a prescribed age, upon which they were bound to be released (twenty-one for females, twenty-five for males). Hundreds, probably more, of the children captured in raids in the southern Highveld were ingeboekt (booked, registered) as weeskinderen (orphans), an apt description, because the children were registered by those likely responsible for killing their parents. Inboekstelsel was a legal veneer to disguise the complete control exercised over inboekelinge (indentures) whose chances of release were slender in a setting where farms were vast and isolated and law a distant, feeble presence. Selling inboekelinge was unpoliced, and “gifting” them to officials was especially appreciated.

The Sand River Convention (1852), an agreement between northern Trekker leader Andries Pretorius and the Cape representatives of the British Crown, had the effect of leaving inboekstelsel undisturbed in the northern Highveld. The Convention was signed after many Trekkers had left trans-Orangia to join others in the North, where conditions for acquiring land, cattle, and labor were more promising. Britain foreswore any administrative claims, recognized the independence of “emigrant farmers beyond the Vaal River,” and promised to keep open the supply lines of arms.7 Though on paper the document prohibited slavery north of the Vaal, it was left to the Trekker-derived government, yet to be established, to enact this provision. Before the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) was proclaimed in late 1853, Trekkers north of the Vaal were in the habit of giving land to themselves and raiding for their neighbors for cattle and child inboekelinge.

Slavery and Slave Raiding in the Northern Highveld

Following the Convention, the future citizens of the ZAR stepped up their raids. In August 1852, a large commando under P. E. Scholtz attacked Sechele’s Kwena and returned with three thousand cattle and six hundred captive women and children. In other parts of the trans-Vaal, raids were carried out against Sekwati’s Pedi, Montshiwa’s Rolong, Mapela’s Langa, and Mughombane’s Kekana. Press reports appeared in the Cape and Natal, and John Moffat and other missionaries alerted Bloemfontein of the raids. “The whole system pursued by the boers towards the tribes under their control was reducing them all to a state of servitude which could not be distinguished from slavery.” Scholtz denied the charges. “[No] natives had been wantonly attacked, or that any tribe whatever had been assailed for the sake of plunder,” Scholtz declared, adding that “there were many persons apprenticed to individual farmers but there were no slaves held by the emigrants.” Those who returned with his own commando against Sechele, he said, had not been “claimed” by the Kwena.8 The fledgling ZAR adopted constitutional provisions against slavery and slave raiding to maintain the republic’s innocence, but as it was being adopted, commandos were launched against Mapela’s Langa (again), Gasebonwe’s Tlhaping, Mahura’s Tlhaping, and Mosweu’s Kora. These and other raids beyond the northern and northeastern ZAR frontier netted hundreds of captive children. A short-lived slave trade also emerged in the eastern trans-Vaal between the Swati, who received cattle, horses, and dogs from ZAR Boers in exchange for children. Amid reports, denials, and fresh anti-slavery proclamations from ZAR leaders, slave raiding did not abate.

Captured children and women met the demand for domestic laborers in Boer farms taking shape in the fertile areas around Rustenburg (Magaliesburg), Pretoria, Swartruggens, and Zeerust. In contrast to the open grasslands in much of the interior plateau, the good soil and veins of reliable streams that flowed north onto the plains below the Magaliesberg hills and from other ranges feeding the Madikwe (Marico) River, attracted permanent Boer settlement. These areas, long inhabited by Tswana speakers of many totems, were unsettled for years by Mzilikazi’s Ndebele, who acquired their cattle and their children. As Arbousset and Daumas observed, “His [Mzilikazi’s] principle is to exterminate the men and women, and to bring up their children in the ranks of his soldiers.”9 After the combined force under Potgieter and Maritz dislodged the Ndebele from their Mosega stronghold, the remnants of Tswana communities regrouped in their home areas. Before the ZAR came into existence, Trekkers had already asserted themselves as rulers of these returned Tswana, primarily to access their women as farm laborers, and to demand military service from the men as hulptroepe (auxiliaries).

Whereas Trekkers partnered with Sotho-Tswana and the mixed Griqua and Kora to raid in the southern Highveld, the Boers of the northern Highveld struck a bargain with the Tswana resettled where the Boers granted farms to themselves. The Tswana were expected to remain and live under the rule of their kgosi (leader by inheritance in the senior patriline, pl. dikgosi), whom the local commandant (kommandant) and field-cornet (veldkornet) recognized as kaptein (captain). As long as the kaptein delivered hulptroepe when commandoes were assembled and provided womenfolk to hoe, weed, and harvest, the kaptein and his followers were entitled to acquire and keep their guns, build their herds, and engage in trade. The commando raids launched on the frontiers of Boer settlement were accompanied by African auxiliaries, who took part in the fighting (often at the forefront) and returned with cattle of their own. As one kaptein boasted in his self-praise poem, “Pilane’s son seizes cattle, he seizes people, too, the Famed One also seizes infants still at the breast, but the infants he seizes he does not keep, he gives them to the white men.”10 Kapteins also safeguarded the inboekelinge in their area. When he visited the area in 1848, David Livingstone was told that when young inboekelinge attempted to escape, Mokgatle (the local kaptein) “caught runaway children and returned them to their owners.”11 Not all kapteins and their followers complied. Many attempted to resist these labor demands, but the only success in exempting themselves derived from relocating outside the ZAR.

In the northern ZAR frontier area of Zoutpansberg, where a scattering of whites settled in and around Schoemansdal in 1848 and lived precariously for two decades, capturing and selling children (swart ivoor or “black ivory”) was an important supplement to the (white) ivory hunting trade that sustained Schoemansdal’s brief tenure. The number of such children far exceeded local Boer demands, and many there were destined for sale in the south as far away as trans-Orangia, if not further. Local authorities and ZAR officials in Pretoria connived in this traffic, which an 1866 estimate by local Lutheran missionaries put at one thousand captives annually. A few English traders also got involved. Rather than a system, acquiring children in the Zoutpansberg was opportunistic by nature and reflective of ad hoc relationships between Schoemansdal Boers and a plethora of African communities of varying strengths. Children were taken in raids, seized or exchanged in small proxy wars, bartered for, and even offered up as tribute. Guns were distributed to African allies and their skuts (“shots”), who hunted white and black ivory for their patrons. Immigrant Tsonga were played off against indigenous Venda to generate children captives. Obtaining children from African communities beyond ZAR boundaries occurred as well. As far away as present-day northwest Botswana and eastern Namibia, Boer traders were obtaining slaves as early as 1855. In 1869, Marico veldkornet Jan Viljoen and his two companions returned to his western ZAR district with seventy young swart wol (“black wool”) purchased in Ngamiland from Lesolathebe of the Tawana.

Slavery on the Highveld

In the 19th century, all governments claiming authority in the interior or South Africa tolerated some form of slavery or forced labor and condoned acts of enslavement. Sotho-Tswana chiefdoms were hierarchical, and leaders (especially of large polities located in drier areas) subordinated San bushmen and Kgalagadi, Yeyi, and Subiya men, women, and children (balala, batlhanka, makoba, basarwa) and used them for herding, hunting, and domestic labor. As slaves they were exchanged and inherited. Tawana who sold children to Jan Viljoen for guns and horses had captured them in raids on subordinate Yeyei and Subiya. Ndebele’s subsuming of captured children for future military service has been noted, and other societies incorporated war captives by attaching them to the dominant group.

Evidence has yet to surface, however, to show that these forms of coerced labor developed beyond occasional opportunistic exchanges within the region, or resulted in a supply of humans to coastal ports linked to ocean-going slave trading. Some few may have been traded in stages out of present-day northern Botswana via the overland route to Portuguese Benguela. For a brief period, the Gaza and Swati kingdoms sold captives to the Portuguese at the port of Delagoa Bay, as did Hendrik Potgieter—once—in 1844.

In the South African interior, by far the most populous slave element was the inboekelinge on the Highveld. Of the documented raids launched from the ZAR until 1869, roughly five thousand captives were taken, 62 percent of whom were children and 33 percent women. An 1866 observer in the ZAR estimated the number of inboekelinge held in the Boer community to be “at least 4,000.”12 In the early years of the ZAR, raiders distributed captives among themselves, but markets in Pretoria and Potchefstroom emerged to deal with increasing inflow from the Zoutpansberg. Exchange values ranged widely from three to thirty British pounds, depending on age, gender, perceived attributes, and ready customers. Girls fetched the highest prices. Most, if not all, children were obtained to become domestic servants. “I have seldom seen a farmer’s house,” wrote an official who worked in the Transvaal between 1876 and 1878, “where there were not coloured female assistants of some kind or another.”13

As a rule, inboekelinge were attached to large nuclear white families on isolated farms. Like domestic servants in plantation slavery societies, they lived alongside their owners and acquired skills associated with household and farm upkeep. Female inboekelinge did the cooking, laundry, child care, cleaning, knitting, tending the sick, and so forth. White families depended on them to look after white wives and children when the menfolk often were away hunting, going on commando, attending political gatherings, and tending herds. The inboekelinge boys who joined these trips were trained up as grooms, herds, wagon drivers, and oxen leaders. They also learned technical skills for maintaining homes and equipment as thatchers, smiths, carpenters, and masons. Inboekelinge functioned in a Dutch-speaking environment. In the rural ZAR, where only a few families acquired wealth of note, inboekelinge as a rule were isolated from others of their status, alienated from their African roots, and deprived of membership in anything resembling a slave community. They entered adulthood, in other words, as a mirror product of their owners’ cultural, religious, and social world, where indeed they were relegated to an inferior status yet—by virtue of their new language, skills, dress, and religious upbringing, inboekelinge were encouraged to think of themselves as oorlamse (civilized persons), that is, divorced from and above the Africans around them. With the wealthier owners, oorlamse as a rule knew the catechism and were literate in the Bible.

The close association of inboekelinge with their owners rarely approached intimacy. Too little evidence is available to prove otherwise, but circumstances at farm homesteads seemingly mitigated against miscegenation. Sexual use of inboekelinge certainly occurred, but sharing accommodation with wives and daughters meant that poor men, black or white, had few chances of privacy. Boers wealthy enough to build separate housing for their servants were apt to safeguard their standing among their strict, churchgoing political peers; a mixed offspring would have ended their ambitions. Whites known to cohabit with blacks were shamed in public. Moreover, owners mindful of the law governing the release of apprentices encouraged young adult inboekelinge to marry and build small houses elsewhere on their farms as a way of retaining their services beyond the legal limit of the inboekstelsel.

Inboekstelsel generated work forces engaged in tasks largely other than field labor, which fell to local Africans. After 1868, when the Kimberley diamond rush got underway in the adjacent northern Cape, crop farming soon overtook hunting and stock raising as a source of income for white farmers in the ZAR. Boers thus faced increasing demand for seasonal labor but lacked sufficient inboekelinge to supply it, and fresh supplies were unobtainable. They thus put increasing pressure on military officials to pry women and men from surrounding Tswana-speaking communities to till, weed, and harvest a range of cash crops, including tobacco. Tensions arising between kapteins and kommandants over labor issues induced a number of Tswana groups to migrate beyond ZAR borders, most notably ten thousand Kgatla under kgosi Kgamanyane, who moved out of the Rustenburg district in 1870 and settled in Bechuanaland. At the time, Kgamanyane’s people provided half the tax revenues raised by the ZAR from its African subjects. Concerned that other departures would undermine the ZAR, the Volksraad instituted measures to reign in military excesses and pay more attention to African grievances.

The End of Slavery

The inability of the ZAR to control its black residents and the rollback of their territory by resurgent African groups on the northern and western borders coincided with the eclipse of slave raiding. By the time Kgamanyane departed the ZAR, white settlers had abandoned Schoemandsdal wholesale to return south from the Zoutpansberg, ending the largest slave-raiding episode in the northern Highveld.

The ZAR struggled for years to divert British eyes from inboekstelsel but ultimately was unable to resist British interference in its internal affairs. The ZAR government formed soon after the Sand River Convention made a public show of honoring its commitment to prohibit slavery north of the Vaal River, including the necessary language in its constitution, issuing statutes to that effect, and refuting repeated charges from the Cape government. But letters, news reports, and tracts alleging raids, captives, and household slaves continued to appear in the Cape and Natal newspapers, and in British parliamentary papers. The poverty of the ZAR government and the lack of private capital created a vacuum drawing in English land speculators and town-based traders. Travelers’ accounts gained worldwide readership. In the late 1860s, excitement over gold in present-day Mpumulanga pulled in more outsiders. Ultimately, with its sights trained on the potential wealth of the South African interior, the British moved into the ZAR in 1877 and declared it annexed as part of what planners saw as a federation of colonies stretching to the Zambezi. British presence sparked a Boer rebellion in 1880 and the restoration of ZAR’s independence the following year. The Pretoria (1881) and London (1884) conventions recognized ZAR’s autonomy, but with caveats, one of which specified “that no slavery or apprenticeship partaking of slavery will be tolerated.”14

Though slavery’s abolition as inscribed on paper had been ignored in the past, the letter of the law was now increasingly observed. From the early 1860s onward, missionaries arriving in the ZAR found ex-inboekelinge living in the towns and sometimes hired them to build their missions. Such devout Christians and proclaimed law abiders as Paul Kruger were known to marry off female servants approaching twenty-one years to local chiefs, in exchange for cattle. And some female inboekelinge in the towns were finding ways to escape through marriage or relationships with wagon drivers. Individual sales occurred, but releasing inboekelinge grown-ups grew more frequent out of necessity rather than as the result of law enforcement. Supplies of captives in any case had dried up, and marketplaces had closed down. The years of large single-family farms, massive stock holding, a hunting culture, and the use of the commando to raid for resources human and bovine were over by the time of Annexation, as was the need for a large retinue of domestic servants. Land speculation was becoming the surest path to wealth. And in 1884, when the ZAR signed the London Convention, the massive Witwatersrand gold reef was about to draw thousands of miners from all over the world and give rise to Johannesburg and nearby mining towns located a few kilometers south of the ZAR capital of Pretoria.

Ex-inboekelinge faced the future with narrow options. Their post-inboekstel history is difficult to track, except where they surface in correspondence and missionary records. Conditions they had endured before leaving inboekstelsel ranged from harsh punishment to relatively relaxed control over their daily routines. Yet, the confined environment created a dependency difficult to break free of. More than likely, inboekelinge couples who outgrew apprenticeship remained on the farms where they had been kept since childhood, or settled nearby, where they and their children continued to work for their former owners. Reintegration into African communities most likely occurred too, though on terms that often subordinated the ex-inboekelinge to inferior status. They lacked the legitimacy accorded to members of such communities through patrilineal affiliation, initiation, and marriage through bridewealth exchange. Those ex-inboekelinge who migrated to such Dutch-speaking towns as Potchefstroom clustered on the fringes and supported themselves through casual and domestic work. In towns they had access to sympathizers or, in the case of women, wagon drivers who were open to relationships and had the means to relocate a lover or spouse elsewhere.

Some missions in the ZAR appear to have had an open-door policy for ex-inboekelinge, whose skills, schoolchildren, and regular attendance at services supported mission settlement at a time when traditional African communities were reluctant to be associated in the eyes of disapproving Boers with these German, Swiss, and Cape outsiders and their strange ideas. Ex-inboekelinge were among the first catechists and evangelists on the Highveld. Dutch Reformed Church missionary Henri Gonin bought a farm (Welgeval) in the Rustenburg district to attract adherents and was joined by several oorlamse, or Christianized ex-inboekelinge. When Gonin moved his mission to a large Kgatla community, the oorlamse remained put. They commuted to Gonin’s new station on the farm- Saulspoort to assist him, educate themselves in Setswana, and serve as teachers and evangelists. In time, the people of Welgeval took root as peasant farmers and multiplied as extended families. A few among them assimilated with the Kgatla, including the wife and mother of Kgatla chiefs, but the majority maintained a distinct identity. Culturally the Welgevalers blended their own synthesis of Dutch and African influences, creating a language featuring elements of Dutch, emerging Afrikaans, and Setswana. They married Western style with the bride in veil, but the two families sealed the arrangement with bogadi (bridewealth) in accordance with African tradition. The third generation departed farming for the professions and among them produced the first PhD in Setswana literature and the first writer of Setswana fiction. Younger generations, however, were sealed off from knowledge of their slavery past unless elders were prodded.

Discussion of the Literature

Until the 1990s, published literature paid little attention to slavery in the interior other than as a form of apprenticeship, almost never acknowledged to have involved coercion. In the Cape and other parts of the British Empire where slavery had been abolished, apprenticeship was understood as a transitory phase leading to freedom. Ex-slave populations lived under an appointed authority for a period of years on the assumption it would allow them the time and means to become self-supporting and negotiate labor contracts.15 Agar-Hamilton concludes that on the Highveld the Apprentice Law was adapted from the Cape apprenticeship system and “at bottom the law was one for the regulation of child labour.” Agar-Hamilton acknowledges that a few illegal raids were carried out to capture children (“blackbirding”), and he singles out two persons in the Zoutpansberg who clearly were involved in slave trading, but he nevertheless discounts raids reported by missionaries and others and assigns blame for the number of “orphans” to Africans, especially parents and chiefs, who gave them away, exchanged them, or unnecessarily put them at risk. He makes much of the fact that the law on the Highveld expressly prohibited slavery and spelled out punishment for those who violated it. The state, though weak, was said to be not complicit.

Similarly, the conditions of “apprenticeship” were supposedly governed by laws that provided for good treatment. Though abuses occurred, punishment was meted out to those judged guilty. In Agar-Hamilton’s view, apprenticeship was intended to allocate children to responsible guardians and “turn them to good account.”16 In the same vein, Walker credits apprenticeship with taking care of orphans and “starving children” either abandoned by or willingly exchanged by their parents. “The Trekkers as a body were certainly neither slavers nor slave-owners.”17 Exceptions were attributed to the ineptitude of Boer governments.18 The terms “apprentice” and “servant” persisted in the literature.19

Such coyness began to erode with Legassick, the first to refer to supposed apprentices and servants as persons “[seized] as captives … subordinated … or distributed or sold.” Legassick also acknowledges that for frontier residents, “obtaining [arms and powder] generally meant selling cattle, or selling ‘apprentices’”20 But Legassick and his peers hesitate to take the next step. Instead of slaves or slavery, they use such euphemisms as “serfs,” “serf-like tenants,” “dependents,” “unfree dependents,” “unfree servants,” “debt peons,” and “proletarians.”21 A handful acknowledge “virtual slavery” on the frontier but attribute it to “individual acts of violence and brigandage” or, in the case of Giliomee, to “local coercion” of labor.22 In an unsourced paper, Trapido offers a brief summary of slave raiding and the use of “inboekselings” as slaves, but he, along with Bonner, Delius, and Wagner, who also provide evidence of slave raiding and trading connected to the Boers, exonerates the ZAR from institutionalizing slavery.23 Until 1988, the word “slave” went almost unmentioned.

When the turnaround came, it was sudden, and controversial. Julian Cobbing published an article claiming that historians had nimbly hidden the role of whites involved in slave raiding in the interior by pinning the blame for the resulting widespread turmoil—dubbed the mfecane or difaqane—on the rise of Shaka’s Zulu.24 Cobbing’s allegations referred, however, not to the documented raids carried out by Dutch-speaking Trekkers and the like but to English-speaking missionaries and officials funneling captives to the Cape. An ensuing academic kerfuffle culminated in 1991 at a major conference at the University of Witwatersrand, where Cobbing’s thesis was savaged by a legion of international scholars, with the provocateur in absentia.25 The Cobbing controversy nevertheless served to draw attention to slavery away from the Cape, where it had been anchored for decades, and induced historians to take the preindustrial interior more seriously. Apart from studies of the Pedi, Swati, and Sotho, located on the edges of the Highveld, and of the Great Trek, little work had been done on Highveld societies as such. In 1994 the first collection of studies on raiding and slavery made its appearance.26

Since then, the history of slavery in the interior has fallen well short of becoming a field of study. Apart from several articles published by one of the editors of the 1994 collection, the only significant contributions have been a master’s thesis on Ohrigstad and Lydenburg and a historical novel authored by the descendant of an ex-inboekelinge community after she accidentally discovered her slave origins.27 Recent general treatments of the interior ignore or barely acknowledge slavery.28 The causes of this apparent dismissal are not difficult to understand. Over the past four decades, South African historiography has shifted its primary attention from the colonial Cape to the industrialized, racialized late 19th century; to segregation and apartheid in the 20th century; and, since 1994, to the liberation struggle. Publications in Afrikaans remain tied to the Afrikaner and Boer experiences, and their authors outside academia are proliferating, while English research and publications are diverging thematically in a myriad of directions, including environment and ecology, gender, monument heritage, leisure, tourism, sports, and HIV/AIDS. Recent research is concerned overwhelmingly with the 20th century, the majority of which falls in the period after World War Two. Historians presently interested in earlier periods have dwindled and are addressing questions that oblige them to keep company with archaeologists rather than social and political historians.

Primary Sources

Conducting future research relative to areas where slavery existed requires special language skills. Most official documents and private correspondence of the time in the ZAR and Orange Free State were composed in 19th-century Dutch, and not always in legible or grammatical form. The bulk of these are reposed at the South African Archives, Transvaal Depot, Pretoria/Tshwane. The National Archives maintains an online search aide for all its repositories, but only the titles of the files are imported into the search engine database. It will take patience and time to explore this vast collection, with no assurance that all relevant files will surface. The correspondence of London Missionary Society missionaries, who were reporting incidents of slave raiding, is located in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies. However London Missionary Society missionaries were discouraged from operating in areas where inboekelinge were being obtained and put to work, because of the perception, largely accurate, that their contacts with the Cape and overseas could be used to put the Boer republics in a poor light. During the period of slavery, only German missionaries had the confidence of officials to run missions in the ZAR. Yet to be carried out is a full study of the missionary correspondence and reports submitted from the western Transvaal to the Hermannsburg Missionary Society and the Berlin Missionary Society.29 Missionary correspondence from the lone Dutch Reformed Church mission in the Rustenburg area has been studied, but the same has not been done for mission stations in present-day Mpumalanga. Dutch Reformed Church records are located in the Library of Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch.

Further Reading

Agar-Hamilton, John Augustus Ion. The Native Policy of the Voortrekkers: An Essay in the History of the Interior of South Africa, 1836–1858. Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1928.Find this resource:

Bergh, Johan S., and Fred Morton. “To Make Them Serve …” The 1871 Transvaal Commission on African Labour. Pretoria: Protea Book House, 2003.Find this resource:

Bonner, Philip. Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires: The Evolution and Dissolution of the Nineteenth-Century Swazi State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Delius, Peter. “Recapturing Captives and Conversations with ‘Cannibals’: In Pursuit of a Neglected Stratum in South African History.” Journal of Southern African Studies 36.1 (2010): 7–23.Find this resource:

Delius, Peter, and Stanley Trapido. “Inboekselings and Oorlams: The Creation and Transformation of a Servile Class.” In Town and Countryside in the Transvaal: Capital Penetration and Populist Response. Edited by Belinda Bozzoli, 53–81. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Eldredge, Elizabeth A. Kingdoms and Chiefdoms of Southeastern Africa: Oral Traditions and History, 1400–1830. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Eldredge, Elizabeth A., and Fred Morton, eds. Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor on the Dutch Frontier. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815–1854. Harlow: Longman, 2001.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Carolyn, ed. Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Legassick, Martin Chatfield. The Politics of a South African Frontier: The Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana and the Missionaries, 1780–1840. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2010.Find this resource:

Morton, Fred. “Female Inboekelinge in the South African Republic, 1850–1880.” Slavery and Abolition 26.2 (2005): 199–214.Find this resource:

Morton, Fred. When Rustling Became an Art: Pilane’s Kgatla and the Transvaal Frontier, 1820–1902. Cape Town: David Philip, 2009.Find this resource:

Morton, Fred. “Family Memory and Historical Fiction: Botlhale Tema’s The People of Welgeval.South African Historical Journal 62.2 (2010): 325–337.Find this resource:

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Migrant Kingdom: Mzilikazi’s Ndebele in South Africa. London: Rex Collings, 1978.Find this resource:

Venter, Chris. “Die Voortrekkers en die Ingeboekte Slawe wat died Groot Trek Meegemaak het, 1835–1838.” Historia 36.1 (1991): 14–29.Find this resource:


(1.) John Barrow, Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa in the Years 1797 and 1798 (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968), vol. 1, 285. Originally published London: J. Strahan, 1801.

(2.) Henry Lichtenstein, Travels in Southern Africa in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1806 (London: Henry Colburn, 1812), vol. I, 124.

(3.) Thomas Arbousset and François Daumas, Narrative of an Exploratory Tour to the North-East of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town: A. S. Robertson, Saul Solomon, 1846), 210–211.

(4.) Joseph Millerd Orpen, History of the Basutus of South Africa (Mazenod: Mazenod Book Centre, 1979), 30–31. Originally an unpublished paper, 1857.

(5.) Quoted in William Miller Macmillan, Bantu, Boer and Briton: The Making of the South African Native Problem (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 222.

(6.) Joseph Millerd Orpen, Reminiscences of a Life in South Africa from 1846 to the Present Day with Historical Researches (Cape Town: C. Struik, 1964), 155. Originally published Durban: Davis, 1908, two volumes.

(7.) George van Welfling Eybers, Select Constitutional Documents Illustrating South African History, 1795–1910 (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 357–359. Originally published New York: George Routledge, 1918.

(8.) George McCall Theal, History of South Africa from 1846 to 1860 (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1904), 348–349.

(9.) Arbousset and Daumas, Narrative, 187.

(10.) Excerpt from Kgamanyane’s leboko. Isaac Schapera, Praise Poems of Tswana Chiefs (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 66, 68.

(11.) Isaac Schapera, ed., David Livingstone: Family Letters, 1841–1856 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959), vol. I, 236.

(12.) Parliamentary Papers, Correspondence Relating to the Alleged Kidnapping and Enslaving of Young Africans by the People of the Trans-vaal Republic, Gideon Steyn to Sir Philip Wodehouse, March 12, 1866, C. 4141 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1869), 4.

(13.) Alfred Aylward, The Transvaal of To-Day: War Witchcraft, Sort, and Spoils in South Africa (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1881), 150.

(14.) Eybers, Select Constitutional Documents, 472.

(15.) Wayne Dooling, Slavery, Emancipation and Colonial Rule in South Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007), 112.

(16.) John August Ion Agar-Hamilton, The Native Policy of the Voortrekkers: An Essay in the History of the Interior of South Africa, 1836–1858 (Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1928), 169–195.

(17.) Eric Anderson Walker, A History of South Africa, 3d ed. (London: Longmans, Green, 1957), 281–282.

(18.) Cornelius William de Kiewiet, British Colonial Policy and the South African Republics, 1848–1872 (London: Longmans, Green, 1929), 105–107, 242–256. For others stressing weak Highland governments, not always with reference to slavery, see Leonard Thompson, “Co-Operation and Conflict: The High Veld,” in The Oxford History of South Africa, I: South Africa to 1870, eds. Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 424–446; T. Rodney H. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History, 2d ed. (Johannesburg: Western Printers, 1981), 106–107, 120–126; and John D. Omer-Cooper, A History of South Africa (London: Jonathan Curry, 1988), 95–97.

(19.) William Miller Macmillan, The Cape Colour Question: A Historical Survey (London: Hurst, 1927), 148, 164, passim; Johannes Stephanus Marais, The Cape Coloured People (London: Longmans, 1939), 18–19; Shula Marks, “Khoisan Resistance to the Dutch in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of African History 131 (1972): 55–80; and Richard Elphick, “The Khoisan to c. 1770,” in The Shaping of South African Society, 1652–1820, eds. Richard Elphick and Hermann Giliomee (Cape Town: Longman, 1989), 3–40.

(20.) Martin Chatfield Legassick, “The Northern Frontier to c. 1840: The Rise and Decline of the Griqua People,” in The Shaping of South African Society, eds. Elphick and Giliomee, 360, 372, 376.

(21.) Martin Chatfield Legassick, “Gold, Agriculture, and Secondary Industry in South Africa, 1885–1970,” in The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa, eds. Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977), 176; Martin Chatfield Legassick, “The Frontier Tradition in South African Historiography,” in Economy and Society in Pre-Industrial South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore (Harlow: Longman, 1980), 60–61; Legassick, “Northern Frontier,” 368; Robert Ross, “The Origins of Capitalist Agriculture in the Cape Colony: A Survey,” in Putting Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa, 1850–1930, eds. William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986), 56–100; and Clifton Crais, “Slavery and Freedom along a Frontier. The Eastern Cape, South Africa, 1770–1838,” Slavery and Abolition 11 (1990): 190–215.

(22.) Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore, “Introduction,” in Marks and Atmore, Economy and Society, 8; Clifton Crais, White Supremacy and Black Resistance in Pre-Industrial South Africa: The Making of the Colonial Order in the Eastern Cape, 1770–1865 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 97; and Hermann Giliomee, “Processes in the Development of the Southern African Frontier,” in The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared, eds. Howard Roberts Lamar and Leonard Monteath Thompson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 86–87, 93.

(23.) Stanley Trapido, “Aspects in the Transition from Slavery to Serfdom: The South African Republic, 1842–1902,” Collected Seminar Papers on the Societies of Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries (London: University of London Institute of Commonwealth Studies 6, 1974), 24–31; Philip Bonner, Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires: The Evolution and Dissolution of the Nineteenth-Century Swazi State (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Peter Delius and Stanley Trapido, “Inboekselings and Oorlams: The Creation and Transformation of a Servile Class,” in Town and Countryside in the Transvaal: Capital Penetration and Populist Response, ed. Belinda Bozzoli (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983), 53–81; and Roger Wagner, “Zoutpansberg: The Dynamics of a Hunting Frontier, 1848–67,” in Economy and Society, eds. Marks and Atmore, 313–349.

(24.) Julian Cobbing, “The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo,” Journal of African History 29 (1988): 487–519.

(25.) Select papers presented at the conference, themed “The ‘Mfecane’ Aftermath: Towards a New Paradigm,” were later published. Carolyn Hamilton, ed., The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995).

(26.) Elizabeth Eldredge and Fred Morton, eds., Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor on the Dutch Frontier (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994).

(27.) Diderick Justin Erasmus, “Re-thinking the Great Trek: A Study of the Nature and Development of the Boer Community in the Ohrigstad/Lydenburg Area, 1845–1877” (MA Thesis, Rhodes, 1995), available at; and Botlhale Tema, The People of Welgeval (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2006).

(28.) Johan S. Bergh, Geskiedenis Atlas van Suid-Afrika. Die Vier Noordelike Provinsies (Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1999); Carolyn Hamilton, Bernard K. Mbenga, Robert Ross, eds., The Cambridge History of South Africa, Volume I: From Early Times to 1885 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Paul S. Landau, Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400–1948 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(29.) Hermannsburger archives are located in the Hermannsburg headquarters of the Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionswerk Niedersachsen in Hermannsburg, Germany. For the Berlin Missionary Society, Ulrich van der Heyden, “The Archives and Library of the Berlin Mission Society,” History in Africa 23 (1996): 411–427.