The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery

Today we recognise the existing issue of slavery all over the world and remember those that played a pivotal role in the eradication of slavery in the Cape.

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which is recognised on the 2nd December of every year, recalls the date of the adoption, by the General Assembly, of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of Others (resolution 317 (IV) of 2 December 1949).

This day focuses on the eradication of contemporary forms of slavery, such as trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labour, forced marriage, and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. Today, 21 million women, men and children are trapped in slavery all over the world.

Although this day is centred on contemporary forms of eradicating slavery we should also remember those who played a vital role in the abolition of slavery in the Cape during the 17th and 18th century.

Louis van Mauritius, a Cape slave and later a slave rebellion leader, grew up in the brutal world of slavery. Originally from Mauritius, he had been transported to the Cape when he was a young boy. While in his early 20s, he was owned by the proprietor of a wine store on the foreshore where he socialised with diverse populations of sailors and soldiers from throughout the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. It was through these encounters that he heard of the momentous events taking place in this era of revolutions and war, which included the slave uprising in Haiti.

Hearing about the struggles for freedom in Ireland, France and Haiti, van Mauritius was inspired to lead over 300 slaves and Khoena (Khoi) servants in a march on Cape Town to demand their freedom. He disguised himself as a Spanish sea captain and was able, with fellow leaders, to convince farmers to release their slaves into the hands of the ‘military’ party.

His rebellion was swiftly crushed as the Cape Governor was aware of the revolt and ordered military forces to lie in wait for the rebels at Salt River. The participants were trapped and quickly scattered in the face of superior forces. The rebellion was over in two days.

The marchers were pursued, captured, interned, interrogated and 51 were put on trial. Four of the five leaders, including Louis van Mauritius, were sentenced to hang.

Even though the slave rebellion was unsuccessful and resulted in the demise of van Mauritius the slave world did transform in the years that followed. In the subsequent years more and more Cape slaves demanded rights within the colony rather than running away. Although slavery at the Cape continued until 1834, the actions of distant abolitionists was eventually to bring chattel slavery to an end in the 1830s.

The Slavery Abolition Bill passed by the British parliament in 1833 was enforced. To make them fit for freedom, the emancipated slaves were compelled to serve their previous masters as apprentices for four years.

About 39,000 slaves were freed on December 1st 1838, Emancipation Day, when slave apprenticeships were finally terminated.