Today In History: Abraham van Batavia, First Slave Arrives at The Cape



Less than a year following the arrival of Jan Van Riebeek, Abraham van Batavia, the first slave at the Cape (South Africa) arrived on 2 March 1653 aboard a ship named Malacca. He claimed to have run away from his master, Cornelis Lichthart of Batavia.

Van Riebeeck and his fellow Dutch arrived in South Africa on 6 April 1652 in what was to become centuries-long campaign of violence, dispossession and deprivation of the indigenous people.

Abraham van Batavia was stripped of his real name and given the slave name – an act that finalised the erasure of his being. Slaves were never allowed to retain their birth names. His slave-surname indicates where he was captured – Batavia (current day Jakarta, Indonesia). He was given a biblical first name from the Old Testament, like many other slaves.

There was also a widespread use of classical names, often those of emperors and mythical figures like Alexander, Hector, Titus and Hannibal. Calendar months, like February, were also common names.

It seems quite sadistic to christen a slave with the name of a historically significant figure whilst aborting their life’s potential into a purgatory of nominal existence – a living death.

Abraham worked at the Cape in the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) until he was sent back to Batavia.

The Dutch East Company was a private merchant company formed in 1602 in Holland. It was a monopoly that had wide powers similar to that of a sovereign state including the right to sign treaties and declare war. It was also transnational company exploiting the resources of countries colonised by the Dutch and other European countries. It was owned by six chambers of Dutch merchants for whom it generated massive profits. The company deployed Jan Van Riebeeck to the Cape. He had been an employee of the company in Java, Sumatra, China and Japan from 1639 to 1649. He was brought back to Holland and suspended for corruptly trading for his own account in Batavia after which he was sent to Brazil, the West Indies and Greenland. He was then sent to build a Dutch East company trading post at the Cape.




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