Simon’s Town

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An Uncomfortable Paradise: A History of Dispossession and Slavery in Simon’s Town

This blog comes out of the Wilberforce Institute’s longstanding connections with South Africa, and the researchers who work there. One of the greatest strengths of this is the opportunity it gives us to expand our understanding of the enduring legacies of racial segregation and slavery in that country. Here Joline Young, who has previously advised Dr Nick Evans and Dr Sam North about their research on slavery, including Muslim heritage in the Western Cape, shares the exciting news of her first book examining this often-forgotten part of South Africa's history.

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Joline Young - Heritage Consultant

Simon’s Town, a seaside village in Cape Town South Africa, is popularly known as a tourist destination with a distinctly British feel. This is because of the town’s historical links to the British Royal Navy who set up a naval port there in 1814. There were of course also British people who arrived in the town from the time of the first British Occupation in 1795, which saw Britain wrest control of the Cape from the Dutch East India Company through the Battle of Muizenberg.

A number of British people who settled in the town became slave-holders, particularly during the ‘period of transition’ at the Cape (1795 to 1814), when control of the Cape went from Britain (1795 to 1803) to Dutch Batavia (1803 to 1806) and then back to Britain (1806 to 1814), at which time the Cape was formally ceded to Britain by the ‘Dutch.’

An Uncomfortable Paradise looks deeper into the history of Simon’s Town and outlines the history of indigenous dispossession and slavery there while showcasing the human stories of people who emerged from archival documents. These human stories relate to the period of Dutch East India Company control in the town and the period of British colonial control.

As the cover says, “This book tells the human stories of enslaved people, including vignettes and stories about the people whose lives intersected with theirs. During the period of Dutch East India Company possession, these were the slaveholders and the indigenous people of the False Bay. During the period of British colonial occupation, this extended to people described as ‘prize negroes’, ‘Free Blacks’ and West African Krumen. This book explores how the lives of all these people became enmeshed with those who were enslaved in the Simon’s Town district.”

Author’s journey

My personal journey into this formerly neglected history of Simon’s Town began in 1998 when I met a woman who had been forcibly removed from Simon’s Town during the period of Apartheid Forced Removals during the 1960s. Her name is Patty Davidson, and she asked me to research and write the history of her community. At the time, I had no idea what an enormous task I had agreed to undertake.

It was, in fact, only in 2009 that I was able to embark on this research when I conducted oral history interviews with people who had been forcibly removed from this beautiful seaside town. At the time, I was struck by the contrast between their present neighbourhoods and the beauty of Simon’s Town. The people I met included the artist Peter Clarke, himself a descendant of the West African Krumen who worked as indentured labourers for the British Royal Navy in Simon’s Town from 1834, and migrant workers from the Eastern Cape, who lived in Luyolo Village, an area on the mountainside in Simon’s Town. I also met relatives of the local trek (seine-net) fishing families who once dominated the trek fishing industry in Simon’s Town. Seine-net fishing, known as trek fishing in South Africa, is a nearshore fishing activity in which an uitkyker (look-out person) stands on a hill or elevated mountainside look-out point and eyes the sea for signs of fish. Uitkykers, who were taught this skill from the age of nine, were able to judge the size of a shoal and also the type of fish in it by the colour of the water and also the type of ripples in the water.

However, it was the archival research for my Master’s degree on ‘The Enslaved People of Simon’s Town’ that inspired me to write this book. The people who emerged from the dusty pages of archival correspondence covering three centuries were begging to be rescued from historical oblivion. Their stories needed to be told. People needed to know that they once lived in the town, the contribution they made to the town, and what their experiences as enslaved and indigenous dispossessed people in the town had been.

The book is a culmination of all this work and, pertinently, the fulfilment of my promise to Mrs Patty Davidson all those years ago. However, journeys are never undertaken alone and I was fortuitous in having a wonderful publisher who walked this journey with me, namely Dr Sandra Rowoldt-Shell of Nagspro publishers, herself the author of the acclaimed Children of Hope.

In writing this book, I sometimes felt as though the book was writing itself exactly the way it wanted to be written. It may well be that after conducting historical tours over the years, writing the book felt very similar to speaking to someone on a tour. Whatever it was, when I commenced writing this book during the 2020 Lockdown, everything just flowed. An Uncomfortable Paradise is the result. The book is my ode to the people I have met in these archival records, whose stories touched me very deeply. Through this book, their lives and memory are honoured.

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