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Slavery was officially abolished at the Cape in 1838, but its legacy lives on in South Africa. The country’s coloured inhabitants, who make up fifty percent of Cape Town’s population, are largely descendants of slaves and indigenous Khoisan people, and some historians argue that apartheid was a natural successor to slavery.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the almost 26,000-strong slave population of the Cape exceeded that of the free burghers (citizens, mostly of European extraction). Despite the profound impact this had on the development of social relations in South Africa, it remained one of the most neglected topics of the country’s history, until the publication in the 1980s of a number of studies on slavery. There’s still a reluctance on the part of most coloureds to acknowledge their slave origins.

Few, if any, slaves were captured at the Cape for export, making the colony unique in the African trade. Paradoxically, while people were being captured elsewhere on the continent for export to the Americas, the Cape administration, forbidden by the VOC from enslaving the local indigenous population, had to look further afield. Of the 63,000 slaves imported to the Cape before 1808, most came from East Africa, Madagascar, India and Indonesia, representing one of the broadest cultural mixes of any slave society. This diversity initially worked against the establishment of a unified group identity, but eventually a Creolized culture emerged which, among other things, played a major role in the development of the Afrikaans language.

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