There has been hardly any research in India on the transport of Indians to South Africa as slaves during the Dutch settlement in the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the period of Dutch settlement in India and South Africa constitutes a serious lacuna in Indian historical research.

Indians were taken into slavery in South Africa within a few years after Van Riebeeck established the first settlement at the Cape in 1652. From then until late in the eighteenth century, a  large number of Indians were taken into slavery in the Cape.  They  and their descendants played a significant role in South African history.

Recent researches in South Africa have destroyed the myth that slavery in South Africa was on a small scale and that slavery in the Cape was relatively mild. The number of slaves exceeded the number of whites from 1713 and in 1834 when slavery was abolished, there were 38,473 slaves in the Cape.

The researches also destroy the myth that Asian slaves were mostly employed as domestic servants rather than on farms, that they were treated gently and frequently liberated. The records show that Asians were not spared the extreme cruelty that all slaves suffered. 

Indian studies on slavery deal with the institution of slavery in India (agrestic, domestic etc.). They extol British efforts in the nineteenth century to abolish the system of slavery.

They contain some information on the import of slaves into India from east Africa and Arabia. But they hardly refer to the slave trade in and from India by the Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and the Danes.

African slaves, known as Habshis, were imported for a long time into India by Indian and Arab merchants. Many of them were employed by Muslims nobles and European  residents of Bengal.

Some Malay slaves were also brought to India by British and other officers.

The slaves were freely sold in India.

But there is little study of export of Indians as slaves.

In fact, Indians were taken as slaves to Arabia by merchants who brought back African slaves, even as late as the nineteenth century. 

A large number of Indians were taken as slaves to Batavia (now Jakarta) early in the seventeenth century. According to Anna Boeseken, a South African scholar, who studied the letters of Pieter de Carpentier, the Governor-General in Batavia to the Seventeen (Council of the Dutch India Company), there were no more than seventy slaves in Batavia in 1618.     In 1622, the vessel Nieuw Seelant brought  about a thousand slaves from the Coast of Coromandel to Batavia. The Governor-General, Pieter de Carpentier, then sent two large ships to the Coast of Coromandel with strict instructions to bring back no fewer than 2,000 slaves. As the captors were not given much ready money, they brought back to Batavia only 700 slaves. 

The mortality among the slaves was high. On February 3, 1626, Pieter de Carpentier informed the Seventeen that only 130 of the 544 slaves bought from the ruler of Arakan in 1625 were still alive. The king of Arakan, in turn, complained that he had lost more than 4,000 of the 10,000 slaves he had bought from Bengal; and Dutch officials who had purchased 1,300 slaves from the king of Arakan lost more than half that number. (Anna Boeseken, Slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape 1658-1700, pp.62-63. Her sources for the above are letters from Pieter de Carpentier to the Seventeen - i.e. the council of Dutch India Company). 

Arakan was a source of cheap labour, but the supply decreased by 1645. Other sources had to be explored: Malabar, Coromandel and Begal coasts became more popular. (p.63). 


The Dutch sojourn in India lasted from 1658 to 1796.(?)

The Dutch captured Amboyna from the Portuguese in 1605 and in subsequent years conquered Indonesian archipelago. They took possession of the last Portuguese settlement in Ceylon in 1658.

They established factories in Gujarat, Coromandel Coast, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and even deep in the interior of the lower Ganges Valley. The more important were at Pulicat (1610), Surat (1616), Chinsura  (1653), Cassimbazar,  Baranagore,  Patna, Balasore,  Negapatam (1659),  Cochin (1663) and  San Thome, near Madras  (1673).

Commercial rivalry between the British and Dutch in India remained acute until 1759. Sometimes they were allied against the French.

(The British began setting up factories in India from 1608. From about 1613, Surat was the main settlement on the West Coast but was overtaken by Bombay in 1687).


Dr. A. J. Boeseken made a painstaking study of the deeds of sale and other transactions in the Cape in the 17th century and published  information on the transactions concerning the slaves.  The sales of about eight hundred persons from Asia were recorded. But these appear to be only a fraction of the actual sales.  Many were brought illegally by clandestine means and proper records were not kept in many cases.

Most of the Asians were brought to the Cape in Dutch ships and  sold  by officials, sailors and ships` officers returning from the Dutch settlements in India, Ceylon and the Indies (Indonesia)  to the Netherlands. Some were sold on behalf of Dutch settlers in those countries. They were sold in the Cape since slavery was illegal in the Netherlands: slaves would be freed on arrival in that country.

Many of the Dutch brought slaves to the Cape to make a profit. Some sold their slaves and servants in the Cape on condition that they could purchase them back if they returned to Asia.

The slaves were given Dutch Christian  names by their masters or the salesmen, so that their identity was concealed, but the records indicate their places of origin.

A number of English and Danish ships were also engaged in this slave trade.

If the data on registered transactions, prepared by Dr. Boeseken is representative as regards the places of origin - that is of Asian slaves sold in the Cape in the seventeenth century -  the number of slaves from India sold in the Cape in the seventeenth century far exceeded those from the present-day Indonesia. The places of origin were as follows: 

Bengal                        198

Malabar Coast                 178

(including Cochin - 34

Goa -     2)

Coast of Coromandel           227

(including Trancquebar- 42

Tuticorin - 16

Madras - 18

Masulipatnam -  6

Nagapatnam  - 10

Pondicherry -  2

Ceylon                         18

East Indies                   166

Frank R. Bradlow went through all available studies with  information on slaves in South Africa and prepared statistics on their places of origin as indicated by their names. The sources are very incomplete and and involve duplication: they will need to be taken with caution. The following are from three of his nine tables. 


Origin               Number    Percentage

India                 653           50.39

Ceylon                 20            1.54

Indonesia             189           14.58

Africa*               397           30.63

Other                  37            2.85

Total                1296          100.00

*Not including 10 born in the Cape


Origin               Number     Percentage  

India                 184           37.47

Ceylon                 36            7.33

Indonesia             245           49.90

Africa*                17            3.46

Other                   9            1.83

Total                 491          100.00

*Not including 388 born in the Cape


Origin                Number      Percentage

India                    90            28.75   

Ceylon                   27             8.63

Indonesia               168            53.67

Africa*                   8             2.56

Other                    20             6.39

Total                   313           100.00

*Not including 514 born in the Cape

The nine tables of Bradlow from as many sources add up to 4,890 names: 1,607 Cape-born and 3,283 born abroad. The foreign-born were divided as follows:

Origin              Number    Percentage

India                 1,195           36.40

Ceylon                  102            3.10

Indonesia             1,033           31.47

Malaya                   16            0.49

Africa (Madagascar)     875           26.65

Mauritius                 6            0.16

Others                   13            0.40

Unidentified             43            1.31

Total                 3,283          100.00

If his samples are representative, over 70 percent of the foreign-born slaves and free blacks in the Cape in the early 19th century were of Asian origin, and of those, over half were from India. The figures by region were  as follows:

Bengal                498

Coromandel            271

Malabar (west coast)  378

Other                  36

(Note: There is a litle discrepancy in numbers)

Though the percentages were only an approximation, they show that Indians did form a very large portion of the slave population in the Cape of Good Hope.  

Imports of slaves from India dropped in the 18th century, especially after the Dutch prohibited the export of male slaves from Asia to the Cape in 1767, though there was considerable evasion of the Ordinance. 

[Many of those already in South Africa had been dispersed and lost their identity as their descend¬ants were listed as Cape-born or, perhaps for various reasons, became integrated into the "Malay" community.

The slaves from Asia were often known as "Malays" or "Cape Malays" - not because of their geographical origin but because they conversed in Malayo-Portuguese, the lingua franca in the ports of the east at that time.] 


Misgenation was common in the Cape until the nineteenth century, not only between the slaves and the Khoi ("Hottentots") but also between whites and Asians. Quite often white men and slave women lived as husband and wife: their  children were owned by the father and became part of the Afrikaner community.

The practice was so common that in 1685, mar¬riage between a white and a black (slave or free) was prohibited, but marriage to a woman of mixed white-black origin was allowed. 

Inter-racial marriages were not unusual in the seventeenth century because of the scarcity of women. According to Heese, they increased in the eighteenth century. Usually the marriage was between a white man and a dark woman. There was a severe imbalance of sexes in the Cape until the nineteenth century.

The aristocracy included people who were dark. There was no rigid colour barrier though colour and class had an influence on attitudes.

A distinct "Malay" community or class developed at the Cape by the end of the eighteenth century. Members of this group descended from people of Asian origin, especially on the male side, and were held together by Islam. They  maintained a distinct identity.

While the "Coloured" population of South Africa - now numbering about three million - is, in large part, of Indian origin, there was also an element of Indian ancestry in the Afrikaner population.

J. A. Heese, an Afrikaner, in Die Herkoms van die Afrikaner 1657-1867, presented the results of a painstaking research from parish registers and other sources on the ancestors of the Afrikaners. He found that in 1807, between 7.2 and 10.7 percent of the ancestors of the then living Afrikaner population were Africans and Asians. Perhaps nearly a quarter of the present Afrikaner population has Indian ancestry.

Asian ancestry was not considered unusual. Reverend M. C. Vos, a prominent clergyman in the eighteenth century, in his autobiography mentions his partly Asian ancestry with no comment. 


The survival or the spread of Islam among the slaves and free blacks was a significant phenomenon in the history of the Cape. The reasons for this deserve further study.

Frank R. Bradlow wrote that slaves and free blacks of Indian origin came from the strongholds of orthodox Islam - Bengal,  Coromandel and  Malabar.  Coromandel and Malabar were, however, not  Muslim majority areas. In Bengal, too, the Dutch settlements were not in the Muslim majority area. Bradlow's  conclusions on the reason for the spread of Islam in South Africa require revision. 

Asians as well as Africans were converted to Islam from the late 18th century. The slave-owners did not actively prevent this as Christian slaves could not be sold and the Muslims were considered sober and more reliable. 

The term "Cape Malay", used to denote Muslims, was  more religious than geographic. 

Indians did play an important role in the spread of Islam. 

Imam Frans and Imam Achmat, who established the first mosque in Cape Town early in the 19th century and were influential in the Muslim community, were both from Bengal - the latter from Chinsura, the Dutch settlement.

In the second half of the 19th century, there was  a new influx of  Indians into South Africa, including Muslim merchants from Gujarat and Konkan on the west coast. There was some intermarriage between the Cape Muslims and the new Indian Muslims.

 The "Cape Muslims" now number (130,000 or) half the total Muslim population of South Africa. 


Since the research has been done by South Africans, and no Indians from India or South Africa were involved, there have been errors in the interpretation of the data.

For instance, most of the researchers assume that the Asian slaves had been purchased from the "slave societies" in Asia. 

There is reason to believe, however, that many of the Indians sold into slavery in the Cape were not purchased as slaves in India, but were domestic servants, bonded or otherwise, taken to South Africa and there sold as slaves. 


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