A brief history of slavery from Kochi to Cape Town at Kochi Biennale
A brief history of slavery from Kochi to Cape Town at Kochi Biennale

A brief history of slavery from Kochi to Cape Town at Kochi Biennale

In an interview, Cape Town artist Sue Williamson talks about the little-known history of shipping off men, women, and children from Kochi by the Dutch East Indian Company to South Africa, as slaves.

The slightly-muddied white T-shirt, drying quickly on a clothes line at the back of Kochi’s Aspinwall House, came with a description. Name: Anthoni, Place of Birth: Cochin, Sex: Male, Seller: Joan van Schiek, Buyer: Adriaan van Brakel; Price: Rs 48, Sold at Cape Town – 7.5.1679. A man called Anthoni, born in Kochi, in the 17th century, was sold to someone in Cape Town, South Africa as a slave.

Sue Williamson, an artist based in Cape Town, found out this little piece of history – not just of Anthoni, but many like him – men, women and children as young as eight years old – shipped off from Kochi by the Dutch East India Company, to be sold as slaves, miles away from home. In December 2018, she brought to the Kochi Biennale, an art installation on this discovery she made quite accidentally, a fragment of history little known in India.

In an email interview, she says, “In 1996 I was invited by the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands to make a work about their town. On visiting it, I found the museum there had almost identical items - paintings, china, etc to the museum in the Cape Town Castle. Hoorn was one of the main ports used by the Dutch East India Company. The director of the Hoorn Museum told me that Cape Town has the most accurate slave documents in the world. Probably because all early transactions were done in one place and carefully recorded. This link aroused my interest in this history.”

It was when she came to Kochi as a visitor two years ago that she had the same reaction as she had in Hoorn many years ago. “The Dutch Palace in Kochi again contained the same artefacts as those other museums, and I found Kochi has been colonised very soon after the Dutch had set up in the Cape.”

Sue found records of the sales from Kochi, written in the original Dutch, in the Cape Town Deeds Office, which listed a few details of the people taken there, to be bought and sold. “We are not given the original name of the person, since each person would be given a new name the Dutch owners could pronounce, but we do know other details of the sale.”

One may find it strange that South Africa, which is known to have had a horrible history of slavery, needed people from elsewhere to be taken as slaves. Sue has an explanation for this. “You have to understand the history of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) to know why people from Indonesia and India were taken to South Africa.  The DEIC was the first multinational company, and their ships sailed from Holland round the Cape of Good Hope to India and the East Indies to collect china, coffee, spices etc. to take back to Europe. This period of merchant trading is still referred to as “The Golden Age’ of the Netherlands. Cape Town was colonised in 1652 in order to provide a halfway house and refuelling stop for these ships on their way to the east, to get fresh water, vegetables etc.

Under the rule of the Heeren XVII, the governing board of the DEIC, their colonial officers were not allowed to enslave local people - for obvious reasons. Escape from working in the fields, etc, would be too easy. They needed slaves from other countries who had no way of getting home. So the ships would sail out from Holland, round the Cape, stop to refuel, continue to the East, pick up spices etc - plus a number of enslaved persons - then return to Holland via the Cape, dropping off their human cargo en route. This was the beginning of the Indian and Malay communities in South Africa.” 

For her installation, Sue chose an arbitrary number of 119 garments to be exhibited as symbols of this practice, calling her work ‘One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale’. She requested from the Biennale, 89 cotton labouers’ shirts and 30 pieces of white muslin to represent wraps for women. It is on these clothes she inscribed with block print, handwritten details of the slaves sold – name, sex, age, seller, buyer, price, place and date of sale.

Sue Williamson / Courtesy: www.sue-williamson.com

She took these garments to the Cape Town Castle, headquarters of the DEIC, where many of the enslaved persons laboured. “I read extracts from historical accounts, while Busi, a young woman who works at the Castle, picked up each shirt from a shipping pallet, read out the name and information on the shirt, then took it inside an old kitchen off the main lawn, and handed it over to be dipped in mud, symbolising the hard labour and harsh treatment undergone by the enslaved persons. It was then hung on a washing line,” Sue says.

The muddied garments were left hanging for three weeks in a room that had once been a kitchen. “Visitors commented on the fact that seeing a shirt with a name and birthplace written on it crammed with many others in a small space recalled the darkness of that history,” Sue says.

Two months later, in December 2018, the garments were taken to Kochi. There, the bundle of muddied clothes is washed clean at the Dhobi Khana – a public laundry - originally set up by the Dutch to wash officers’ uniforms. “In an echo of the performance where the clothes were dipped in the mud (in Cape Town), throughout the period of the Biennale, small bundles of the clothes are being washed clean again by Rajen, a local laundryman at the Dhobi Khana. Not all the dirt can be removed, suggesting the impossibility of erasing history,” Sue writes.

The washed garments are then hung on the traditional rope lines, facing the sea, in what Sue calls an insubstantial enactment of return.

Sue's other art installation at Kochi Biennale - ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’

Sue Williamson, whose works are exhibited in public collections across the world belongs to that generation of South African artists who began to address social change during the apartheid. Her works such as Truth Games, Can’t Forget, Can't Remember, Messages from the Moat, and Better Lives continued to focus on such issues as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, slavery, and immigration. At the Kochi Biennale, she has, in addition to the 119 Deeds of Sale, another installation called ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage’. This work with five nets, hundreds of bottles and water, is also about slavery, but in the 19th century, from both sides of the Atlantic. For the Kochi Biennale, the entire installation was remade in Kerala by local craftspersons and located in an old warehouse at Aspinwall House. The nets were woven by Kochi fishermen, and the information on the bottles was engraved by young artist/architect Hannah Joseph.

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