On December 1, 1834, the enslaved people of the Cape celebrated the official end to their enslavement with religious services, public gatherings and much rejoicing. Street parades, marching bands, singing and dancing in the streets and homes filled the city with the sounds and sights of celebration. On 30 November, on the evening before their emancipation, bonfires were lit on Table Mountain and on Signal Hill, and fireworks were set off in the harbour area. This marked the formal end of one of the most dreadful periods of the country’s history.

The system of slavery was first introduced when the Dutch colonised the Cape in 1652, and by the 1700s people were brought from Indonesia, India, Madagascar, southern Africa and other parts of Africa as enslaved people. This system was held up by both Dutch and English colonial powers.

In the early years enslaved people were held in the Slave Lodge in the city and were forced to work for the Dutch East India Company, while some worked on the farm estates along Table Mountain. Many enslaved people were kept on wine farms or other agricultural farms in rural areas.

While many enslaved people were happy to hear the official news of the declaration in 1834, they had to wait four years before they were fully granted freedom in 1838. Once they were free, up to 3000 former slaves settled in the District Six area alone.

People see evidence of the labour of slaves in the many, old colonial buildings that can still be found in the city. They contributed greatly to the growth of the city, but beyond the labour they provided, how else did the enslaved people contribute to the culture of Cape Town?

Our annual celebration of klopse (carnival) and Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) in Cape Town is one that is marked by minstrels parading through the streets of Cape Town, wearing painted faces, colourful clothes and playing carnival tunes with brass instruments and goema drums. This practice originates from the one day in the year enslaved people were given time off: 2 January. On this day they would gather, picnic and play their instruments.

The sounds and rhythm played on the goema drum also led to the formation of the goema style of music – and this music influenced the development of Cape Jazz. When you listen to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim, you can hear the distinctive rhythm of goema, which Ibrahim would hear on the streets of District Six as a young man. The Genuines, a 1980s rock band from the Cape Flats, drew on the tradition of goema to create music that spoke to the experience of living under Apartheid.

We also know that Cape Town food is heavily influenced by the traditions, spices and recipes used by enslaved people. Favourite dishes such bobotie, samoosas and koesiesters are evidence of this.

For many Capetonians, our names are also an indication of a slave ancestry. When sold off at a site such as the Slave Tree in Spin Street, oftentimes enslaved people’s identity would be stripped away and they would be renamed after the months of the year. Names such as Januarie, Februarie and Maart can be found in all areas where slavery was a reality.

While we can point to music, carnival and food as traditions that remind us of the city’s slave history, we must also honour the acts of resistance that led to many slave revolts.

In 1766, 140 slaves on board the Slave Lodge ship Meermin revolted on their way to the Cape from Madagascar. In the uprising 15 enslaved people were killed and the ship was wrecked off Cape Agulhas. A surviving 112 slaves were eventually brought to the Cape.

In 1808 Louis van Mauritius and Abraham van de Caap, with over 320 followers, reached as far as Salt River before being turned back and being arrested by local militia.

The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool uses a saying that says it best: “Remember not that we were freed, but that we fought.”

Each year, on the evening of the 30 November, the District Six Museum and the Prestwich Place Project Committee organise a ‘A Walk in the Night’ through Cape Town to commemorate Emancipation Day. They walk with performers, minstrels and poets; with young and old. They walk to reclaim the spaces in the city that were inhabited and built by those whose voices have been forgotten and who have not been honoured. From ten o’ clock in the evening until midnight they parade through the city, imagining what it must have been like for those who heard about the promise of freedom on that November evening 187 years ago.

This commemoration of Emancipation Day is not new. We know that Lydia Williams, an enslaved woman, celebrated this day each year.

Lydia Williams was born into slavery in 1820 on the Zonnebloem Estate, which lies on the eastern edge of District Six. Like many on the estate, she was of Mozambican descent. She witnessed many horrors – her child was taken from her and she bore the scars of a sjambok on her back. When the enslaved people of the Cape received full emancipation in 1838, Lydia was a young woman of 20 years old. She remained on the estate as a domestic servant and in 1867 a cottage was built for her in Cauvin Street in the Dry Docks area of District Six. On 1 December Lydia celebrated the Feast of the Release of the Slaves. She wore a ‘cotton frock of gorgeous hues’ and adorned her head with flowers. She decorated her cottage with cut outs of birds and animals and baked plaatkoek for her neighbours. Affectionately known as Ou Tamelêtjie, she was a founding member of St Philip the Deacon in District Six.

Lydia passed away on 16 June 1910, having spent a large part of her life contributing to the missionary work of the Anglican Church. In 1929 Lydia’s School was built on the site of her cottage, but the building was later demolished in the 1970s under the Group Areas Act and the process of forced removals which displaced District Sixers during Apartheid.

The Covid-19 pandemic has prevented gatherings, but the commemoration of 1 December remains important as we reflect on the traditions we have inherited, the bravery of those who revolted and the joy Lydia found in celebrating her freedom.


Do you know who Mrs Ples was? Read here to find out more

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