Originally published at https://medium.com/@DarrenReidHistory/resisting-the-forced-labour-system-in-colonial-south-africa-1877-1879-56007f12f07d.
The five decades of Apartheid (1948–1994) are often considered the pinnacle of racial oppression in South Africa. But Apartheid was just an evolution of centuries of racial conflict. One little-known instance of this terrible history took place from 1877–1879, during what is known as the Ninth Frontier War between the British Cape Colony and the African Xhosa people. While the Xhosa men were busy fighting, thousands of Xhosa women and children were arrested by the Cape Colony and forcibly indentured into quasi-slavery. 3878 of these prisoners were shipped to Cape Town and housed in a labour market called the “Kaffir Depot,” where all but 60 were purchased and sent to work on surrounding farms.
The Kaffir Depot was closed on 15 May 1879 after the war ended, and the 60 remaining prisoners — 34 women, 24 children, and two men — were escorted by armed policemen to the Cape Town docks. One of the women, Nonanti, refused to leave, screaming that she would not be taken away from her children. When the guards would not leave her behind, Nonanti produced a knife from her pockets and attempted to cut her own throat rather than leave her children. The policemen restrained Nonanti, took away the knife, and marched her and her 59 companions to the docks and onto a steamer ship to be taken back to the frontier.
This horrific scene would have gone completely unnoticed by the world if not for a Xhosa interpreter named Shadrach Boyce Mama who witnessed the event and was determined to hold the Cape Colony government responsible. Mama wrote three different accounts of the brutal way Nonanti and the others were treated. The first he wrote to an African newspaper called the Isigidimi SamaXhosa (The Kaffir Express). The second he wrote to the Cape government. The third he wrote to a British humanitarian group called the Aborigines’ Protection Society.
These three accounts spread far and wide. The account sent to the Isigidimi provoked outrage amongst the Black population of Cape Town. The account sent to the Cape government resulted in an official inquiry into the matter. And the account sent to the Aborigines’ Protection Society was passed on to the British government, resulting in the Secretary of State for the Colonies publicly chastising the Cape government.
The forced indentureship program and the cruel treatment of the 60 women and children evicted from the Cape Town Kaffir Depot were terrible aspects of South African history and important precursors to the development of Apartheid in the twentieth century. Yet Shadrach Boyce Mama’s efforts to hold his government responsible were also important. His story is a testament to the bravery and determination of Black South Africans to resist racial oppression, and his efforts were themselves precursors to the downfall of Apartheid at the hands of African activists.
You can read the actual letter written by Shadrach Boyce Mama to the Aborigines’ Protection Society, along those of other Indigenous peoples, settlers, and missionaries at www.aps.darrenreid.ca, where I have uploaded the photographs and transcriptions used in my research. You can also read more about Mama and the Kaffir Depot in my article in the South African Historical Journal, available for free at https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/UUTHCAWG3KSVTJN6QBWX/full?target=10.1080/02582473.2020.1827018.
Darren Reid is a PhD student at University College London. Darren’s interdisciplinary research spans communication studies, food sovereignty, and digital humanities, while his primary research focuses on histories of nineteenth-century British imperialism in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Darren has previously published on colonial legal cultures, transracial identities, digital text analysis, and imperial networks. Learn more about Darren’s research at https://www.darrenreid.ca/.