Jan Brandes, 1786. Strand street in Cape Town. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Slavery at the Cape finally came to an end in 1838. For almost two centuries, the institution of slavery underpinned the Cape economy. Not only were the enslaved used for their labour on Cape farms, but they constituted an important asset class, and were often used as collateral for loans between settlers.

The period of slavery has attracted much attention from an earlier generation of scholars. Excellent contributions on Cape slavery appeared in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, by scholars such as Nigel Worden, Robert Shell, Robert Ross, James Armstrong, Leon Hattingh, Susan Newton-King and many others, but interest in the field has waned in recent years. The period of emancipation, one of the most important in South Africa’s history, has attracted almost no attention from serious scholars since Wayne Dooling’s book in 2007. No South African history department seems to be prioritising slavery research.

That is surprising. Research teams across Europe, the UK and the US are launching ambitious projects to document, digitise and disseminate their histories of slavery. Knowledge of the period of slavery is seen as key to understanding contemporary race relations. Only yesterday did American president Joe Biden sign the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, marking 19 June as a federal holiday. Juneteenth remembers 19 June 1865, the day, months after the northern US states defeated the South in a civil war fought over slavery, enslaved African-Americans in Texas were told they were free.

But it is not just in the US that research on slavery is attracting increased interest. New methods and innovative use of sources – from DNA to OCR technologies, from network to textual analyses – now allow new stories to be told of regions typically excluded from previous accounts. The experiences of enslavement from Sri Lanka to Sao Paulo, from Mozambique to Martinique are now being documented.

Through investigating slavery we also learn about the development of capitalism. A book I’m enjoying thoroughly enjoying is Bronwen Everill’s Not Made by Slaves, in which she tells the story of how abolitionists used new ideas of supply and demand, consumer credit and branding to promote products that were not produced by slaves. It is a story of ethical capitalism long before the Fair Trade-campaigns of today.

The Biography of an Uncharted People project I coordinate at Stellenbosch aims to return Cape slavery to the research agenda. Our ‘Capitalising on emancipation’-theme includes several students now working on aspects of the emancipation experience. Headed by postdoc Kate Ekama, the theme first set out to fully transcribe the entire series of slave valuation rolls recorded in the early 1830s on the eve of emancipation. We then matched these records to the compensation records in London. Throughout the British empire, slave-owners received compensation for the loss of what then was considered their assets. Transcribing and matching these two data sources have produced an invaluable tool for future historians and genealogists: a list, by name, of all the enslaved individuals in the Colony in 1834, some biographical details like their gender, age, origin and occupation, and the details of their slave-owners.

The first paper in which we present this dataset has just been published in Explorations in Economic History. Kate Ekama, PhD student Lisa Martin, historian Hans Heese and I provide a snapshot of the enslaved population at the Cape in 1834. What do we learn? By the time of emancipation, with the slave trade outlawed for almost three decades, Cape slaves were predominantly born locally. The male gender bias of an earlier generation had disappeared. Many had skills that allowed them to work in different kinds of occupations although, of course, with still the limited freedoms that came with being enslaved. We also investigate different slave-naming patterns. The Sunday Times was first to report our main findings.

The dataset also allows us to investigate the distribution of wealth in the Colony. We find large differences in slave valuation by district, for example, with a high Gini coefficient of 0.64 in the Cape district and a much lower Gini of 0.43 in the outlying Beaufort district. We can also assess how compensation money changed these inequalities.

There is still much to investigate. Kate Ekama investigates the mortgage records and the agents that were involved in claiming compensation. She recently published a paper on slave collateral in a special issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies. For her PhD, Lisa Martin will follow the formerly enslaved after emancipation, to Cape Town and to the mission stations. She has already published a paper with Robert Ross on the topic. PhD student Karl Bergemann is investigating how frequently the enslaved ran away, even as emancipation was approaching, and what this says about their agency. And in chapter 14 of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom, I explain how the episode of compensation transformed capitalism at the Cape, moving it from the informal credit transactions of the countryside to the first formal banks of the colony.

Much more can be done. In the Cape of Good Hope Panel project, funded through the Sweden Riksbanken Jubileumfonds, we are transcribing opgaafrolle, household tax censuses over more than a century. With the help of the Andrew Mellon foundation, we are also busy transcribing auction rolls. Both sets of documents include detailed information about the system of slavery. This transcription is expensive. Sadly, despite the rich records available in the Cape Archives and the importance of slavery for South African history and for understanding our South African identity, the appetite for research into Cape slavery, notably within history departments, local universities, and government, seems limited. That is why we are incredibly grateful to our international partners that see the potential of these projects.

In little more than a decade, it will be 200 years since the emancipation of the enslaved at the Cape. Let us hope that by then a new generation of historians would be investigating this pivotal period of South African history.