Shadows of the old slave tree

The old bones of slavery -on which Cape Town was built - are rising to the surface. Mike Nicol, this week’s guest writer, speaks to a group trying to deal with this legacy

ON a traffic island in the middle of Cape Town’s Spin Street is a low, round cement memorial. An inscription in English and Afrikaans reads: “On this spot stood the old slave tree.” That’s it.
No dates. No reason for remembering. No meaning. Just this strange need someone once had not to forget.

I stand under the imaginary tree. In front on the right is the Groote Kerk. Opposite it, the South African Cultural History Museum. Round the corner is Parliament. If any part of Cape Town contains all its present and all its history, this is it.

While I’m standing there in the midst of the morning traffic a businessman crosses the street: he’s wearing a dark suit, white shirt, a discreet red striped tie, well- polished black shoes, briefcase, cell-phone clipped to his belt. The description is important, it locates him in a world of private enterprise, democratic government, he’s a man of his time. This is his city; he walks confidently through its streets.

“Excuse me,” I say pointing at the memorial, “can you tell me what this means?”

He reads the inscription aloud. It’s the first time he’s noticed it.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe there used to be slaves here a thousand years ago. Maybe it’s something historical like that.”

He laughs, wanting to get away, baffled by my question. Perhaps he thinks I’m a tourist, although I asked him the question in Afrikaans.

“I don’t know,” he says again. “I can’t help you. It’s something to do with slaves.”

Something to do with slaves.

Cape Town has something to do with slaves. Cape Town was founded on slavery. Although it’s difficult to know this because the shame of those who were slaves and of those who enslaved has been deeply buried. Only now are the old bones working their way to the surface.

Yet, to many historians, Dr Robert Shell among them, it was “slavery, not the frontier and certainly not the process of industrialisation [that] shaped South Africa”.

I watch the businessman hurrying away towards the Groote Kerk, I watch until he turns the corner into Adderley Street. He’s coloured. It’s likely some of his forebears were sold on this spot. It’s likely some of his forbears spent their years in the South African Cultural History Museum. Only in those days, from 1658 to 1828, it was called the Slave Lodge.

As the inscription says, on this spot grew a tree. It became known as the slave tree because in its shade, people were auctioned once a week. People from East Africa, Madagascar, India, Indonesia, people who’d been caught by slave traders and brought here to be sold. But also people who’d been born in bondage in Cape Town.

For instance, between 1823 and 1830 some 3 000 slaves were auctioned here, on this spot where I’m to meet Reverend Michael Weeder, one of those involved in the December 1st Movement, who will lay a wreath a the site on that day, Sunday December 1,this year.

The movement was founded last month, and the issue of the direction it will take has not been decided: whether it’s to be a political or a socio-cultural movement. It is described by its proponents as a “broad- based cultural project” that seeks to recreate and redefine the coloured community.

In a preliminary meeting with a group from December 1st I was told “It’s not a movement seeking to base itself on a coloured nationalism. It’s not a question of coloureds looking out for coloureds, it’s a matter of all South Africans resolving the dilemmas of the coloured community. Look,” they stressed, “we’re here, we’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here.”

What makes the December 1st Movement different, what gives it some resonance, is its name: it looks to a slave legacy. December1 1834 was the date Britain’s Emancipation Decree was enacted in the Cape Colony.

And now, for the first time in 162 years, the shame that has kept the heritage of slavery suppressed has been pushed aside. For the first time a group of people wants to recognise the suffering of the coloured community’s ancestors, while also realising the skills, culture, effort that an enslaved society put into developing the city and much of the former Cape province. They also want to re-imagine their history.

Like the others in the movement, Weeder has no difficulty in admitting that in the depths of his family history there were people who were owned the way cattle are owned.

He arrives at our designation beneath the imaginary slave tree. We shake hands. Weeder looks like an Anglican priest should: he’s solid, his face is round, friendly. His eyes are a sympathetic brown. He’s wearing leather sandals: under the circumstances they have an almost biblical significance. He looks down at the inscription.

“What does this say?” he asks rhetorically. “What does this tell you about what happened here? Families were destroyed here. Children sold to one person, their mothers sold to another. A woman sold to a farmer in Stellenbosch, her man sold to a merchant in Cape Town. Can you imagine that? Can you just imagine what it was like, all the misery that happened here on the ground beneath our feet.”

He looks away down the street as if he can see slaves waiting to go on auction.

“This is a sad place,” he says.

Then he tells me a childhood memory: it is about his mother who would always say a prayer whenever she passed near this spot. When he asked her why she did this, he was told that bad things had happened there to “our people”. But what the bad things were he didn’t find out until very recently.

“This doesn’t acknowledge what was done to our people,” he says, placing his foot on the memorial. “There is no sense of spirit here, no sense of the past. This is not a place where you can reflect on the suffering of those people. If you can’t see the country’s past, if you can’t hear the voices from the past, then you can’t understand the present.”

We wait for a break in the traffic then cross towards the South African Cultural History Museum - the Slave Lodge. In the museum there’s a history of colonialism: swords, uniforms, imperialism’s domestic bric-a-brac, and the inevitable tourist shop selling wire toys, miniature flags, the kitsch of the new South Africa. On the wall in the entrance is a small plaque acknowledging that the building was once a lodge for slaves. Of more prominence is a notice pointing the way to “Jan van Riebeeck’s tomb”.

In the courtyard next to the well are some precast concrete tables and chairs. We sit there. It’s chilly, an unseasonal north- wester carrying the odd drops of rain swirls about the walls. Occasional tourists, puzzled, unsure what it is they’re looking at, speaking in hushed tones, smile at us and walk quickly away.

Yet, if you sit still in that courtyard it doesn’t take much to imagine the 18th century: the stench of the open sewers, the mixture of people, Chinese convicts, Malagasy slaves, those shipped out from Bengal, and their unhappiness, their longing for home, the futility that must sometimes have dragged at their souls.

In his report in 1792 the lodge director wrote: “Thirty-six of the lodge slaves are incapable of doing any hard work owing to old age or physical disability; they are responsible for cleaning the lodge and nursing the small children. Some are in sick beds, others are about to become mothers ... Some of the aged and infirm [Dutch East India] Company’s slaves ... are totally blind and have to be led by the arm, and others are lame and must be carried ... Many are so weak or deformed that no outsider would care to be burdened with them ...”

And yet there must have been laughter here, too. Good times. Moments of love and tenderness.

Eventually Weeder says: “I could have had forebears who lived in this building.”

The animation he showed at the slave tree memorial is gone. His voice is softer, less sure. Its hesitant tone makes me glance at his eyes: they’re shiny with emotion.

He starts talking about his life, about how he was ordained in St George’s Cathedral, a stone’s throw from where we’re sitting. About the attitude of the church over the centuries towards the coloured community. He talks about “that church” - symbolised in this phrase by the cathedral - having no place for his people, the enslaved, failing to nurture them, about how it was the mission churches of the Anglican church which embraced the spiritual needs of his community.

“Yet I swore loyalty to that church,” he says. “What sort of an act is that? I knelt before the bishop, a highly political young man, yet totally ignorant of such a basic aspect of my origins. It’s almost as if in affirming my calling to God I was betraying my ancestry.”

In a way this sounds like an old debate within Weeder’s conscience. What’s new is where it’s happening. The lodge slaves seem to be more than distant figures in the word “ancestry”, they seem to be here, now. They seem to have added new voices. He can feel their presence.

He pauses, then adds: “Part of what the December 1st Movement is about is unearthing the past. To become effective we must find the treasure of our heritage. We have a need to reflect on the past. Yet we mustn’t reflect out of too little knowledge.”

A spattering of rain drives us back into the building. We read the plaque about the slave lodge: it is bland, inaccurate, dated 1977.

“What we need is this building,” says Weeder suddenly. “We need to get it back. Show what it was like for the people who lived here. Clear out all this colonial nonsense and reconstruct it as a site of emancipation.”

The idea excites him. As we walk up Wale Street he enlarges on it: imagines the poignancy of the recreated slave quarters, sees it as a research centre, a cultural focus, and, finally, an acknowledgement of hard lives.

We part at Burg Street and I head towards Greenmarket Square. Once, centuries ago, in the evenings, the slaves used to gather outside the Old Town House on this square. It must have been a noisy, friendly, raucous time.

After years, decades, of sterility, that time has returned. On the steps of the elegant building are Zimbabweans selling soapstone carvings, Nigerians selling West African masks. It’s become a meeting place again. It’s as if the legacy of the slaves is reclaiming the city.

Mike Nicol is a novelist and journalist. His most recent novel, Horseman, will be published in Vintage paperback next month

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