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Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838.

The political struggle of blacks for legal and political rights in contemporary South Africa, has somewhat eclipsed its historical origins as a slave-holding society. And yet, as the author of the present work states, there is "an abundance of unusual sources of all kinds . . . perhaps the richest documentation of any slave society, ancient or modern" for writing this history (p. 449). Indeed the systematic and meticulous paper work which accompanied this repulsive social order and immortalized its machinery, easily matches those of modern bureaucracies. Annual censuses, crime records, slave transfer records, petitions from settlers and free blacks, manumission requests, baptismal and cadastral registers, official weekly resolutions, a complete codification of all laws, a detailed daily fort journal and travellers' accounts, all yield precious data. As exploited by Princeton historian Robert Shell, these sources help depict the unique character of Cape slave society, from its inception in 1652 to its abolition in 1835.

The historical and historiographical scope of the book is ambitious, yet fully justified by the results. The author has attempted to write a comprehensive social history both by studying the system as an institution and an economic order, and by documenting all aspects of the slaves' everyday life, from their clothes and housing, to relationships between men and women and family structure. The discussion centres around two major themes, the establishment and gradual development of the slave system, and the material culture generated by the South African slave society itself. The first section, chapters one to four, is devoted to the system and its mechanisms, which are each demonstrated by focusing on a different dimension. The topics covered here include the slaves' geographical origins, their languages, age and sex, the transfer system, sale and domestic markets. At the same time the author provides a scale for assessing the unique aspects of the South African slave society. Features such as the strong Asian and Islamic component on one hand and the high percentage of Europeans lathering their own slaves and the marriages between settlers and slave women on the other, shed light on the racial composition of present day South Africa. The second section, chapters five to eleven, illustrates the historical experience of white settlers and coloured slaves locked together in an environment which was foreign for both. Some of the more innovative and intriguing chapters of the book are found in this section. They include those describing life at the Lodge, the effect of wet nursing on fertility rates in the colonial society, and the effects of slavery on the Cape architecture, illustrated by the link between changes in the local urban architecture and the slaves' arson activity. Other chapters in this section include discussion of the unique place of slave women in settler households, the naming patterns used for slave children and religious status. Last but not least, there is a chapter devoted to the different aspects of manumission, before and after the abolition of slavery in the Cape.

The book stands out methodologically for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a uniquely rich quantitative apparatus, quantifying data and presenting it by means of numerous computer originated graphs and drawings. The numerical and textual reconstructions are treated equally and intertwine to make their case both individually and together. The author also succeeds in combining his goal of writing a detailed history of Cape slavery with the need to apply recent theoretical considerations to it. For example, family control seems to him to have been at the centre of the political, economic, and gender issues, deciding the fate of everyone and everything. This certainly has a considerable bearing on the fate of female slaves, and it is also very useful in explaining the males' fate, being at odds with the fact that the great majority of the Cape slaves were single males, doomed to, lonely lives as a result of the unfavourable sex ratio. This use of the family both as a metaphor for the system itself and as a central axis for organizing the narrative and examining historical experience in perspective, is in line with current historiographical practice.

Historians with specialized knowledge of slave holding societies will find in this book not only a thorough account of the South African experience but also a comparative investigation, including the lack of an abolitionist movement. The vast literature dealing with slave holding societies has furnished a set of references for the study, and by adopting a comparative approach, the author has contributed to the understanding of the main controversies in the field, while explaining how his case is different. The non-specialist, unfamiliar with the history of South Africa, would benefit from a more detailed introduction. The origins and demography of the settlers' society itself, and especially the economic structures established in the Cape, into which the slaves found themselves incorporated, are not presented and explained initially. Numbers given randomly would be much more meaningful if looked at together with figures for the overall population of the Cape, in comparable societies in the American South, or the Caribbean. Also, despite frequent references to it, we have to wait until p. 180 to find out that the Lodge was the building used by the East India Company to house the slaves.

The rich data recovered through years spent studying the relevant archives, both in the Netherlands and in South Africa are evident throughout, but, to the author's credit, are not permitted to dominate the text. In addition, this study covers the entire chronological period of South Africa slave society. As a result of all these features, the book will very probably remain the standard reference work in its field for many years to come.

Maya Shatzmiller University of Western Ontario
COPYRIGHT 1995 Canadian Journal of History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Shtzmiller, Maya
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
Words:948
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