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Abstract

During the past three decades, historians of the Cape Colony during the period of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) rule have transformed our view of the role of slavery. Slavery has moved from an issue of marginal importance to one which is now considered central to the establishment and growth of a colonial society in South Africa. Most of this work, however, focused on the agrarian areas of the colony, and there has, until recently, been relatively little attempt to plumb the uniqueness of the experience of slaves and free blacks in VOC Cape Town. This topic deserves interest because of the cosmopolitan nature of the urban environment and its links with the wider world of the Indian Ocean. This article is a synthesis of the most important recent research on the experience of slaves and free blacks in Cape Town. It shows that although there is general agreement about the origins and development of slavery, its demographic nature and its economic significance, Cape historians have yet to fully utilise the available sources to trace the cultural and social history of urban slavery. This article indicates some of the areas – such as family history, the role of religion, material culture and the creation of meaning – which are in need of research, and suggests some of the sources and approaches which could be utilised.