Here is an inspiring, true story as a present for the visitors to our site as we go towards the end of the year, when the New Year’s resolutions we make can inspire us and then guide us through 2019.
The moral of this true story is two-fold: first, a small group of people, however oppressed, can by their will help change the balance of class forces and thus bring changes in history; second, an individual can have a massive effect on history, but only if he or she works collectively towards building “lakorite” (profound agreement) with others, who also develop the will to act collectively – on the basis of a common understanding of reality they wish to change and a shared program as to what they want for the future.
Here goes with the story of Louis van Mauritius. (1)
There was a slave born in Mauritius called Louis, thus known as “Louis van Mauritius”, who became the leader of the first big slave rebellion in the Cape Colony in 1808. This adds another name to the rebellions linking the Cape to Mauritius. The first one was led by Ana de Bengal, the woman slave leader, and it was a massive rebellion in then Dutch colony, Mauritius, which was run from its Cape colony. The rebellion was held on 18 July 1695. Ana de Bengal worked collectively with two other slave colleagues, Antoni de Malabar and Aron de Amboina, as leaders of the uprising. They burnt down the entire colonial headquarters in Mauritius. Although they were publicly executed, this fuelled further slave rebellions, which ended up being one of the reasons for the Dutch finally abandoning their Mauritian colony as from 1705.
In the Cape, Louis van Mauritius, together with two Irishmen James Hooper and Michael Kelly, an unnamed Indian slave and two Khoikhoi free men, and three other slaves, Jeptha of Batavia, Abraham and Adonis – these nine men together, led by Louis – decided to organize an uprising as had been done successfully in Haiti over the previous decade. Usually at the Cape, slaves just deserted, moving out of the area controlled by the colonizers, what we call going into maronaz and rarely organized uprisings.
So, the rebellion held on the 27 October, 1808, led by Louis, the Mauritian slave who worked as a tailor, was the first major attempt at overthrowing the slave-owning class, and its militarized state in Cape Town. As such, it paved the way for, first, a less severe regime of slavery than what had been meted out before, and it was ultimately one of the factors that contributed to the abolition of slavery.
Louis, born in Mauritius and arriving at the Cape when he was young, was by 1808 in his early twenties. His owner ran a wine shop, which exposed him, to the ideas and the news that came in with sailors and soldiers passing through the Cape, no doubt keen on buying wine. As a tailor, he would have heard a lot about world news from those he made clothes for. In particular, the passersby brought news of the French Revolution, and of even slave uprisings taking place in the Caribbean. News about the coming abolition of the slave trade also came via visitors, and no doubt planted the seeds of hope in slaves’ minds and hearts. Most influential of course was news of the revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) led by slaves during the time of the French Revolution.
What Louis said happened was that the two Irishmen, James Hooper and Michael Kelly, informed him that slavery had already ended in Europe and the Americas. He had heard, he said later, “that in other countries all persons were free, and there were so many Black people here who could also be free, and that we ought to fight for our freedom.” (1)
Their plan was to march from the rural areas, gathering slaves and farm labourers on their way, on Cape Town, and then to seize the Amsterdam Battery. So, they would surround the capital from the countryside. Once in control of the Battery, they would turn their arms on the all-powerful Castle, and then be in a position to negotiate on freedom for all slaves. What a program, and what a strategy. Even their tactics were wise.
So, on the evening of 27 October 1808, they assembled on the farm of someone called Gerhardus Louw, north of the town Malmesbury. The two Irishmen disguised themselves as British officers, and Louis cut a fine figure as leader. He had acquired a Naval uniform not unlike the clothing that Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, made famous. Louis wore “a blue jacket turned up with red, white Chinese linen trousers ... and two golden and two silver epaulets besides some feathers for his hat.” He claimed he was a Spanish ship’s captain, with his two British assistants.
The farmer at the first farm they went to, Gerhardus Louw, was away at the time. The group of rebels behind their “Spanish Captain” and “British Officers” convinced the farmer’s wife to hand over all her husband’s slaves for “military duty” at the Cape. She gave the rebels a meal, and place to rest overnight. In the morning, they went from farm to farm in Swartland and Koebert, convincing slaves and Khoikhoi labourers to join in the uprising. They put together a little army of over 300 mutineers, slaves and servants united. According to the history site in footnote (1), the farmers did so little to resist for three reasons, the size of the group, the fact that they were well armed, and the speed with which they executed their plan. Only one farmer, Hendrik Prehn, resisted.
The mutineers killed no-one, just tied them up, when necessary. One farmer, however, Adriaan Louw, said he was pulled by his hair, hit over the head and on his back with the back of a gun, and dragged on the ground. The rebels however took all the horses, arms and ammunition they found. Seven farms were looted, with broken windows and doors. In some farms, the wine cellars were also looted.
In all, the 340 rebels attacked 30 grain farms, and took some farmers captive. Then they marched to Cape Town, where the prosecution said they intended to “hoist the bloody flag and fight themselves free”. They did intend to raise the red flag and declare themselves and all slaves free.
The authorities at the Cape, however, got the infantry and cavalry to lay a trap for them at Salt River, and 36 hours later the rebellion was thus quelled. Many rebels escaped, but 326 were captured by the troops. 47 were put on trial. Louis van Mauritius and James Hooper were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Eleven others were also sentenced to death for participating actively in the rebellion. Others still were sent to Robben Island, reminding us that the place where Nelson Mandela and Neville Alexander were locked up was, even then, used for incarcerating revolutionaries.
This slave rebellion obviously did not seize power. However, it was the sign, the living symbol, of the anger of slaves in the Cape Colony at the time, and of the contagion of revolution in the world of those days. The slave rebels called their captives “jij” (twa) not “u” (u), as a sign of their seizing power. Abraham, one of the slave rebels told a slave woman who was crying for her master to be untied, “Tomorrow the troupe will hoist a red flag and fight itself free, and then the slave women will all be able to say ‘twa’ to their mistresses”.
From then on, more slaves stood their ground, instead of resorting to maronaz, and fought for their freedom. Together with the work done by abolitionists in the Cape and world-wide, and together with the capitalist system needing wage slaves with money in their pockets, money that could buy the pots and pans, the pins and needles, the cloth produced in the steam-run factories of the north of England, this kind of rebellion against slavery, all helped to finally end slavery in 1834 at the Cape, and in Mauritius in 1835.
In other places slavery was only finally outlawed as late as a generation or two later, in the USA in 1863 and in Brazil as late as 1888.
These two links have been relied upon for the retelling of this true story, and we acknowledge them and encourage you to read them. The story was referred to us in LALIT by Gunvant – with thanks to him, too.
(1) Louis van Mauritius and the Slave Revolt of 1808 on the South African History site, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/louis-van-mauritius-and-slave-revolt-1808
(2) Worden, Nigel. ‘How a slave from Mauritius led a rebellion in Cape Town.’ 30 March 2016. https:// www.groundup.org.za/article/how-slave-mauritius-led-rebellion-cape-town/