My current research examines the financial underpinnings of nineteenth-century slavery and the development of the South African economy. A deeper investigation of the role of the enslaved in economic life – that goes beyond labour – brings to light a more nuanced understanding of the legacies of slavery in South Africa.
In recent years, scholars have become increasingly interested in the aspects of slavery beyond labour. In the Cape Colony, as elsewhere, the enslaved were used as collateral on loans. In a 2021 article ‘Bondsmen’, I showed that the practice continued after the de jure abolition of slavery at the Cape. Compensated emancipation in the form of cash and four years of labour for masters facilitated their continued access to credit until the end of forced apprenticeship in 1838.
The announcement that compensation payments would be made in London was met with outcry in the Cape Colony where slaveowners were resident (not absentees, characteristic of West Indian plantation slavery). This problem of distance created opportunities for merchants to profit from the business of compensation. In a paper entitled ‘Profiting from Slavery after Abolition’ I analyse the business of Thomson, Watson and Co., one of the firms that stepped into the gap, making a handsome profit from processing slaveowners’ claims. This set them up for later business in speculative trades and investment in real estate in Cape Town.
Slaveowners were not the only ones entitled to compensation payment from the British Government; mortgage holders were officially included in the process too. In ongoing work, Robert Ross and I are investigating what these recipients of compensation chose to invest in. Using mortgage records and rates rolls, we are tracing the money into the building of Cape Town slums in the 1840s.