Reflecting on a Slave Rebellion

Although there were frequent incidents of slaves resisting the terms of their bondage–refusing to work, sabotaging equipment, running away, and physical violence–there are only two documented slave rebellions in South Africa. The rebellion at Houd den Bek is not widely known. Novelist AndrĂ© Brink used the the events as the basis for his novel A Chain of Voices (1982, Afrikaans version titled Houd den Bek), but even having a literary work in English and Afrikaans does not mean this rebellion is part of a wider historical memory.

Despite a detailed transcript of the criminal proceedings against the rebels and a rich historiography of slavery at the Cape, the rebellion has not received as much attention from historians as other facets of the colonial era. By reading Rayner, Ross, van der Spuy, and Watson, you can claim to have studied the complete scholarship on this rebellion.

What does this historiography of rebellion focus on? What questions does this literature not address? Can you suggest reasons why?

50 thoughts on “Reflecting on a Slave Rebellion

  1. In most past slave rebellions we expect no one who is considered an enemy to be exempt from execution, whether it was the wives or children of their master, but why did the prisoners not shoot or kill the children of late van der Merwe.

  2. During class, Professor Mitchell posed the question of how gender roles come into play at the Houd den Bek rebellion. I thought this idea was very thought provoking and I realized that almost all situations that involve societal entities and the history of a people can be interpreted in a number of views through gender role theories and gender role socializations.
    The Houd den Bek rebellion can be seen as a gendered event because female slaves were generally not accused for the rebellion, although they could have been fully capable of coming up with the rebellious plan and leading the slaves into revolt. The sexist view is that females are not as assertive and as powerful as men, therefore female slaves could not have been held responsible for the revolt. Also, the colonial mentality comes into play here, as the colonists did not want to execute able-bodied female slaves who would bear children that would increase the slave population in the future.
    How else can you interpret the Houd den Bel rebellion in terms of gender role theories?

  3. I noticed the historical accounts by Ross and Rayner on Houd den Bek largely focus on creating Galant’s character. Looking at Galant’s reactions to the information of slavery being abolished elsewhere becomes important to understanding his intention for the rebellion. Additionally, how Galant is portrayed is important to understanding the outcome and participation of other slaves and Khoi people. I personally thought Rayner provides a more dynamic character portrayal and shows Galant more gradually reaching a tipping point. For instance, Galant does not trust Betji at first and Rayner writes Galant is “alarmed” and “overwhelmed” while listening to his master. Rayner portrays the overheard conversations as the tipping point for Galant. What I felt was missing from Rayner’s interpretation, however, was the extent that the other slaves knew about the proclamation. We only learn of Galant’s knowledge, but what about others?
    Ross portrays the event as a complete failure and even says that slaves knew they had no chance of making any change. This contrasts with what Rayner had discussed about their plan to set the country ablaze before fleeing to another country, indicating there was a plan of action. So my question is which is true? What were their intentions? Ross’s conclusion seems more opinionated than historical. He is measuring the effectiveness instead of looking into their motives. I thought it was interesting how both Ross and Rayner take the evidence of Galant not looking into his master’s eyes as completely different from one another. More importantly, the information is told from one person’s account– an Italian worker named Dalree, but neither question Dalree’s significance or ulterior motive to the trial.
    I thought Watson gave an excellent account for why the rebellion failed. Rather than doting on the inevitability of failure like Ross, Watson included actual logistics on the geography and political situation of the time.

    As for why these differences in histories occur, I think it goes back to what we had discussed in class about historians creating accounts from their own perspectives. Ross, Rayner, Watson and Van dur Spay are taking different angles using the same evidence, which gives various interpretations for how and why the Houd den Bek turned out the way it did.

  4. Slave rebellions have not been very well documented because the White settlers were afraid of other slaves in being inspired by the rebellions. There are a few unsuccessful rebellions that we’ve heard about, such as Nat Turner’s rebellion; however learning about slave rebellion is quite uncommon. We normally do not discuss slave rebellion, successful or not, in detail. It seems as if even today, it is not an important topic or issue up for discussion.

    • Maryum, this might be true about the slavery in Africa and in other continents where Europeans established colonies for the mentioned reasons of preventing a chain of rebellions by the indigenous slaves; however, I think slave rebellion is a common subject to learn about within the realm of slavery in the US. I am not sure if the Underground Railroad really counts as an extreme form of a revolt or uprising, but it can be considered, in many ways , as a successful slave rebellion against plantation masters and a way for slaves to escape the atroscious system of slavery. I remember reading a fiction novel about Harriet Tubman and an entire unit on the Underground Railroad in the 5th grade!

  5. One particular question i have regarding the Galant slave rebellion was the fact that the slaves granted no Mercy to those they killed with Galant stating “no pardon for the Christian”. Why was this so? Was Christianity in the minds of the slaves viewed as the cause of their enslavement and extreme suffering?

  6. Thinking about why there has been a lack of scholarship on the Houd Van Bek rebellion, I’m wondering if it is due to the fact that the rebellion itself took place during an otherwise supposedly unremarkable and “quiet” part of South Africa’s history. From what I know of the general historiography of South Africa, when it comes to the 19th century, there is more focus given to the Boer treks (in the mid-19th century, I believe), as well as the wars between the British, Boers, and Zulus in the closing decades of the century. Before the Houd Van Bek rebellion, the most momentous event was probably Britain’s relatively bloodless seizure of the colony during the Napoleonic Wars – even that itself was rather “quiet” in contrast to other events. So, my idea is, what if the Houd Van Bek rebellion was ignored simply because to historians it didn’t seem to occur in the context of larger, bigger events and trends? What if historians, so focused on other, larger, broader topics – such as the Boer treks or the British/Boer/Zulu wars – ignored what would otherwise seem like an insignificant event by comparison?

    • I think one of the reasons why very little scholarship has been granted to such a slave rebellion was maybe to do it’s insignificance at least in the minds of those in control at the time. Those in power most likely did not desire for a slave rebellion to capture the attention of many as it could possibly incite further insurrections in the future.

      • I would agree with john, but let’s not forget that maybe the rebellion did not really affect the south African society, because those rebelling were brought to trial, and had to go through series of legal procedures that included testimonies from witnesses, and which was usually not the case for most rebellions, where does rebelling were quickly executed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *