Female slaves’ stories from the 1830s echo today’s fight against patriarchy

Slaves’ stories are not commonly known. But historical archives hold a clue to individual lives. Nic Bothma/EPA

Towards the middle of 2016 a group of young women activists called on South Africans to “remember Khwezi”. They were referring to the woman who accused then-deputy-president Jacob Zuma of rape (he was acquited) and had to flee the country amid threats on her life.

That rape trial unfolded a decade ago, and at the time organisations like One in Nine vocally supported Khwezi. They called on South Africans to remember all the women silenced by sexual violence even as rights to equality and safety were enshrined in the constitution.

But go even further back: to the times before the Constitution; before the existence of a space known as the Republic of South Africa; or even the Union of South Africa.

It is possible to trace the links between patriarchy, violence, gender roles, and the state further into the past. It’s also possible to trace the ongoing resistance to these by some women.

In colonial records held in national archives – the National Archives of South Africa, the Western Cape Archives and Records Service and The National Archives in the UK – another group of women calls on us to remember their acts of resistance.

They were slave women in the Cape Colony of the 1830s, and their stories echo down the centuries into a country where women are still engaged in acts of resistance, opposition and agency to challenge violence against their bodies by those in positions of power.

Lea’s story

Lea was 26 years old when, in March 1832, she complained to the Assistant Protector of Slaves that she had experienced violence at the hands of Saartjie van der Merwe. Lea, a slave, reported that she had been struck and beaten on the back and other parts of her body with a piece of wood and a thong by Saartjie, her female owner.

Lea walked for eight days from the Camdeboo area of the Cape Colony (then under British rule) to the town of Graaff-Reinet to lay her complaint. She had very little food and water to sustain her and she carried her two-year-old child with her.

Later, she reported to the Assistant Protector that she had been pregnant when she came to lay her complaint and on her way back to the farm had “miscarried on the road, and delivered a foetus [sic] of about six months old”.

Lea’s body was a site of political contestation, resistance, and determination. She was resolved to assert her personhood, claim her “rights” and seek redress against the violence committed against her.

The complaints brought to the Protector reveal that Lea and Saartjie were active political agents. They asserted their own subjectivities and participated in state-sanctioned legal processes – even if these processes sought to construct particular notions of gender and determine what roles “women” were expected or not expected to play.

Lea was one of 990 female slaves in Graaff-Reinet – in what is today the Eastern Cape province – who lived alongside 1,257 male slaves. Between 1830 and 1834, 250 complaints were brought to the Assistant Protector; 116 by female slaves and 134 by male slaves.

Male slaves complained overwhelmingly about male owners. Their cases were almost evenly split between complaints of violence and other incidents not related to violence. By contrast, female slaves laid complaints against male and female owners. Their complaints related almost exclusively to violence.

Some colonial officials were not convinced that it was possible to “control” or “manage” female slaves without the threat or use of violence. By 1832 the maximum number of lashes a male slave could receive was reduced from 25 to 15 and it became illegal to beat female slaves.

In a December 1830 report Major George Jackman Rogers, Protector of Slaves for the Cape Colony, wrote about different approaches to punishment:

It is certainly highly desirable that the flogging [of] female slaves should be wholly discontinued, but some punishment should be substituted adequate to the degree of the offences which many of these stubborn masculine women commit.

He went on:

The consequence is that very many Female slaves have become very insolent and most of them highly insubordinate. They will go out at unreasonable hours, and be Guilty of many serious offences, for which there is now no adequate punishment, and they put their Owners therefore at defiance.

Women slaves experienced physical violence or legal censure because their attitudes or actions were considered unsuitable, untrustworthy or provocative. Rachel’s story illustrates this point.

Rachel’s fight to be heard

Rachel was the slave of a Graaff-Reinet butcher. She sought the Assistant Protector out several times to lay complaints against both her female and male owners, on behalf of herself and her child Francina.

Rachel accused her female owner, Anna Sophia Pienaar, of locking a chain around her leg overnight. She also claimed that Anna had tied her daughter to a tree and punished her with a strap over her shoulders.

Archive notes contain details about the lives of slave women in 1830s South Africa. Carla Tsampiras

Both cases were dismissed. In the second instance, two witnesses, and Francina herself, contradicted Rachel’s complaint. Rachel was admonished and cautioned not to make false complaints again.

Rachel laid a complaint a month later against her male owner for putting her in the stocks overnight. She had threatened to run away – which she’d done before – and the magistrate found this sufficient reason for her to have been confined. Her owner was still fined a paltry one shilling though, as he had contravened the law by allowing her to remain in the stocks overnight.

The magistrate dismissed Rachel’s fourth complaint, again against her male owner for confining her to the stocks. He judged Rachel guilty of having made “an unfounded complaint with malevolent motive”. She was imprisoned for four days on a diet of rice water.

Voices of resistance

Lea and Rachel’s voices are filtered through a colonial archive. Their cases were recorded in a standard format used throughout the colony.

A clerk or other bureaucrat listened to their stories (we do not always know in which languages) and wrote them down in English. Then he made decisions about whether to send the complaints on to another colonial-state sanctioned authority in the form of the resident magistrate, or merely to record them.

Despite this filtering, the stories of Lea and Rachel – and others like Eva, Dina, Christina, and Josephina – are still available. They can be heard by those willing to listen.

These stories are a reminder of how important archives are and why it’s necessary that societies are able to critically engage with them.

Archives allow people to examine different forms of resistance from different times and require that societies remain continually aware of the complex nature of the relationships between laws, the state, those in power, and efforts to create gender identities and roles – and liberate themselves from the worst effects of those creations.

The struggle to dismantle patriarchy and stop the ongoing war against women’s bodies continues. Gendered historical consciousness is a way to closely scrutinise what has changed and what still sounds resoundingly familiar.

The echoes of Lea and Rachel’s resistance and determination call from another time. They strengthen those of us fighting today, demand that we amplify our effort, and insist that we remain stubborn and insubordinate until our efforts fill the archives and tell another story.


Author’s note: in my writing I prefer to use the term “womyn” as it demarcates the created and constructed nature of the idea of “women” and “womanhood” and acts as a reminder that they have changed over time and been influenced by social, political and economic contexts (in this context it is also inclusive of trans people). However I have used “women” in this piece in keeping with this site’s style.