1808 Slave Rebellion Leader

On 25 October 1808 a slave revolt took place at the Cape, remembered as the ‘Jij Rebellion’ led by the slaves Louis of Mauritius and Abraham van der (from the) Kaap wearing military style uniforms. On this day, over 326 slaves, including a few indentured Khoena labourers and two Irish sailors participated in an organised rebellion plotted at a Cape waterfront tavern (Strand Street) and launched from the Swartland farming wheat belt at a farm called Volgelgezang (Birdsong).

The leader of this rebellion was a 30-year-old slave by the name of Louis van Mauritius, who had first arrived at the Cape as a 4-year-old child. He was sold from a passing ship to the Kirsten family. Louis was born in Isle de France now known as Mauritius. As was custom in the naming of first generation imported slaves, he was called Louis van Mauritius. Second generation locally born creole slaves were given the surname ‘van der Kaap’ and third generation slaves were then often given the first name of their slave father as a surname.

Slavery at the Cape

From 1652 – 1834 slavery was a formal institution in the Cape Colony and spread across South Africa as the Boers trekked to set up newly colonised territories. Even after emancipation, so-called ‘prize slaves’ continued to be brought in until 1845 and were then placed with employers under long indentured contracts that closely resembled slavery. From 1652 to 1808 there were 63 000 first generation slaves brought to the Cape and then at least another 15 000 ‘prize slaves’ from 1808 to 1856. These figures do not include those many unrecorded slaves brought to the Cape nor the thousands of indigene Khoena and San frontier slaves and other indigene African slaves taken by Boer commandos beyond the borders of the Cape. It also does not include the thousands of enslaved persons born to successive generations of the children of the first generation slaves. The first generation slaves brought from other lands include 17 315 slaves from India, 47 150 slaves from Africa and Madagascar, and 13 545 from the Indonesian archipelago. The very last ‘Prize Slaves’ to be brought to the Cape, landed in 1890 – they were the Oromo slaves from Somalia.

In addition to the backbreaking labour, they were subjected to the cruellest and most barbaric punishments for rebelling. The punishment throughout VOC rule in the 17th and 18th century (the period of Batavian rule) and the early years of British rule were extremely barbaric and cruel. These punishments included crucifixions, garroting, dismemberment, burnings at the stake, impalement, drownings and being crushed alive. Another favoured sentence for slaves found guilty of various misdemeanours was being drawn and quartered (dragged through the streets and mutilated before possibly being hung).

The Young Louis & the Abolition Movement

It was into this world that the child slave Louis van Mauritius was sold. Willem Kirsten, who had bought Louis, was the fourth son of the influential German burgher Johan Friedrich Kirsten. Willem had married Maria Catharina Grove in 1880 and together they had purchased Louis the toddler slave on the waterfront.

Louis was raised as a child by the Kirstens and was their slave. Although never baptised he was given a basic education, being allowed to attend scholarly classes and brought up with an understanding of the Christian faith. By the time he was 12 years old he would have made the transition from being a child in the household to being a slave worker who had to earn his keep and turn a profit for his owners. Louis was also hired out by his owners, a common practice at that time.

Louis was only five years old when William Wilberforce formed the Abolition Society in England in 1783. At this time slaves were still pouring into the Cape mainly from East Africa. The practice continued to grow and after British rule in 1806, slave prices increased fourfold. By the time Louis turned ten, the French Revolution had erupted and it had an effect on human rights movements worldwide. This had a great impact on the Cape. Within the next decade abolitionists such as Dr Johannes van der Kemp were active in the Cape. Slave revolts and disobedience spread.

In his teen years a series of events unfolded that would have a major influence on the destiny of Louis of Mauritius. In 1791 a rebellion broke out in St Dominique in the Caribbean which by its successful conclusion in 1804 claimed over 300 000 lives on both sides. Led by Toussaint l`Overture against the French colonists, the revolution established the first black republic of rebel slaves which they named the Republic of Haiti.

In 1794 the abolition of slavery was declared in France. In 1794 runaway slaves waged the Maroon War in Jamaica. This was followed by the Feron Slave Revolt of 1796 in Grenada in the Caribbean against the British. These uprisings sent ripples throughout the slave-reliant colonial world, including the Cape. Another conflict that had an impact on all British colonies was the United Irishmen’s Rebellion staged against British Rule in Ireland. The first British governor at the Cape in 1806 was the son of an upper class lord in Ireland. The United Irishmen’s rebellion had been put down by the British regiment known as the Dragoons. Another Dragoon regiment would later put down the revolt by Louis of Mauritius.

The impact of the ructions in Europe was first felt in the Cape when it was occupied by the British in 1795. This occupation ended in 1803 when the Cape was given over to Dutch Batavian Rule under the Council for Asiatic Possessions of the Batavian Republic (Jakarta).

Previously the Cape was under the control of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The VOC rule in the Cape since 1652 came to an end in 1795. The VOC collapsed under the burden of debt in 1798. Louis was working at the Table Bay waterfront at this time, a place that was a mine of information about what was going on around the world. The seamen’s grapevine of stories would have had the young Louis enthralled. At this time Louis was hired out to work as a coolie – a porter or stevedore, which also gave him the chance to mingle with other slaves in similar circumstances.

Louis A Slave for Hire

In 1800 the marriage of Willem Kirsten and Maria Catharina Grove ended in a judicial separation. Louis became the property of Maria Grove and she continued to hire Louis out as a labourer so that she could earn an income. In a peculiar and very ironic arrangement Louis was now hired out at 12 Rixdollars per month to his own wife, Anna who was a free black woman. He then moved out of Grove’s house to the home of his wife Anna beneath the balcony of Stadler’s house and near to Windell’s livery stables at 18 Strand Street. Here Louis and his wife Anna, a much older woman, acquired three horses and hired them out to generate an income. At this time Louis assisted his brother-in-law Abraham Anthonissen in his licensed pachthuis or tavern.

Louis of Mauritius occupied a really complicated station in life. He was a slave but at the same time he was ‘rented out’ to his free wife and was thus able to live a life of relative freedom as long as money flowed back to his owner Mrs Grove. It thus fell upon Louis and Anna to do everything that they could to earn a surplus income to pay the rent on his head and to ensure their own survival. They were most entrepreneurial in how they went about ensuring that Mistress Grove got her payments. But it must have been a humiliating experience for Louis who was controlled by all the laws, rules and norms of the slavery system while his wife was a free woman.

In 1806 the battle of Blaauwberg between the French-aligned Cape forces and the British took place. The 20th light Dragoons arrived in the Cape and were part of the British forces that defeated the Dutch/French alliance at Blaauwberg. Uniforms and weaponry of the dead that were strewn on the battlefields of Blaauwberg were appropriated, some of it by slaves.

It is perhaps from this source that Louis and his co-conspirators indirectly accessed uniforms and weapons for their revolt two years later. They certainly also learnt from this battle that nobody is invincible in war. One seemingly powerful authority could be replaced by another. The Cape was taken over by British Rule and British Crown Colony status was conferred on the Cape.

In 1807 the slave trade was abolished in Britain and the Royal Navy began to patrol the high seas to stop slave trading. Slavery in the colonies remained in place for another three decades. New slaves were still being brought into the colony in roundabout ways, but particularly through the Royal Navy bringing in ‘Prize Slaves’ seized as ‘cargo’ from slave trader ships that they intercepted. These slaves still had a price on their heads and were not set free. They were branded and indentured to farmers as apprentices for 14 years before they could obtain their freedom. This made a mockery of the other name that they were known by, namely as ‘Liberated Africans’.

A Conspiracy

This was the context in which Louis met two Irishmen, James Hooper and Michael Kelly in the waterfront seamen’s tavern where they planned the slave rebellion in 1808. The tavern was a crossroads of stories and sharing of ideas. It was at this tavern where Louis worked for his brother-in-law, that he first met James Hooper, a runaway cabin-boy in the service of the Captain of a passing ship. Louis befriended James and offered him refuge at his home with his wife Anna. Through the stories James told him, Louis came to learn about freedom struggles in Ireland, France, Haiti and elsewhere. They discussed the abolition of the slave trade in the English parliament in 1807. The news from other parts of the world was about discontent and upheaval. The smoky air in the backroom of the tavern was thick with talk of revolution, liberty, equality and fraternity. As Louis had a poor command of English, the duo was joined by Abraham of the Cape, another slave, who acted as an interpreter.

In his trial Louis was later to testify about the tavern talk; “I had heard 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 and then – enough!”

The discussions became more intense as the days rolled on and soon turned to planning, with Louis taking the lead. Another Irishman Michael Kelly, a contracted labourer who had deserted his master, joined the group fairly late in the process. Louis had already taken the key decision that they would be more successful in recruitment and organisation amongst rural slaves who would then march on the town. Louis had a connection in Malmesbury at a farm called Vogelgezang. This man would assist the group. He was a fellow slave Jephta of Batavia who at one time was a stevedore on the waterfront. At the time of the revolt he had a new master at the Vogelgezang farm, Petrus Louw. The leadership group of four were joined in town by another runaway slave, Adonis of Ceylon.

The Revolt

Before embarking on the operation, James Hooper and Abraham the interpreter travelled to Malmesbury to meet with Jephta of Batavia. They reconnoitred the entire route. With all plans and arrangements completed, Louis sold his horses and bought various items to create their own quasi military and naval style uniforms of quite an elaborate nature. He opted for a Spanish naval uniform with ostrich plumes in his hat, complete with epaulettes. He also purchased two swords. He had enough money to hire two unsuspecting hired wagon hands and a wagon complete with six black horses and provisions for a few days.

On reaching Vogelgezang farm the group pulled off an amazing stunt after finding that the farmer was away from home. Mrs Louw, the farmer’s wife and his five children were taken in by the charade. The olive skinned Louis claimed to be a ‘Spanish’ sea Captain and the Irishmen posed as British military officers. They succeeded in being wined and dined. On the morning after, Louis produced a bogus notice from the Fiscal freeing all of the slaves on the farm and ordering that they accompany him to see the Governor. A shocked Mrs Louw protested but was ignored. Jephta organised that the nine slaves and the Khoena servant joined the party which then set off to the farms en-route to Cape Town to liberate all of the slaves. Hooper and Kelly had gone on ahead to organise at the other farms. They had an agreement to meet at a rendezvous point after two separate routes were followed. It was later to emerge that they lost some of their bravado once they had parted from Louis. Michael Kelly undermined the unity of the effort. He proved to be a frivolous and unreliable adventurer, motivated only by self-interest. The remaining leadership group split up, taking the new recruits in smaller groups to each of the farms along the way. As they moved on they became bolder.

Some slaves and Khoena servants believed the story about Louis being sent by the Governor to free them whilst others simply joined in, conscious that it was a rebellion. They rounded up the whites on the farms, barked out orders as though the masters were now slaves and tied them up. Other than two occasions of serious misconduct towards their captive masters and mistresses involving assault and rape, the slaves under Louis’s disciplined command behaved in an exemplary manner even although the rebellion was boisterous. But along the way homes however were ransacked and looted of arms, ammunition, food, wine, clothes and bedding.

The rebels marched on 34 farms and took farmers and their families prisoner and then marched on Cape Town, where it was their aim to hoist the bloody (red) flag and fight until they were free. Over 40 farmers and their sons were captured and tied up on the wagons. The winding processions soon grew to over 326 slaves and Khoena servants. With a rendezvous point agreed at Salt River the rebel columns took three different routes to Cape Town where they planned to launch an attack on the Amsterdam battery, turn the guns on the Castle, then negotiate peace and establish a state authority of free slaves. They had no training or experience of waging battle and the endgame of their plan had little chance of success against the powerful force of the British Empire. But the slaves’ desire for freedom was greater than their fear of the obstacles that they were up against.

The revolt at first went according to plan and was well executed. Then at a crucial point its fatal flaws came to the fore and all hope of freedom ended in tragedy. The entire action was over within two days. At the rendezvous point in Salt River, the Dragoons dispatched by the Governor of the Cape at the time, Lord Caledon, attacked the rebel column and the rebellion was put down. The marchers were pursued, captured, interned, interrogated and 51 were put on trial. Perhaps if this revolt had occurred in the earlier VOC era it may have stood a better chance of success.

In the course of the uprising Louis constantly upped the tempo and improved the organisation of the uprising. The initial tactic of subterfuge and misleading the slaves to believe that they had been set free, changed over the journey with no doubt being left that this was a rebellion. Slavery historian Nigel Worden points out that during the course of the day, Louis appointed subalterns to lead different contingents of rebels and formally invested them with swords and ensured they rode on horseback. Worden states that Louis asserted strict command, punishing those who disobeyed his orders. The 1808 revolt was not anarchical frenzy, as the authorities (and some later commentators) believed. It was a carefully calculated movement that deliberately sought to overthrow and reverse the social order by an elaborate appropriation of the symbols of slave-owner power. In his appraisal of the event Worden says the following in a newspaper feature article celebrating the 200th anniversary of the event in October 2008.

“It was an amazing feat of organisation, given the poor communications of the time, lack of any military experience, the long distances covered between town and countryside, difficult terrain, and the complexity of the plan itself. Added to this is the relative orderliness and discipline of the operation and the extent to which it had proceeded before it was checked, by the mounted, armed and most experienced military force of the times. For a small group of committed conspirators to have achieved this is quite phenomenal, given the context”.

At the most crucial moment at the rendezvous point for the final push forward, the Irishmen James Hooper and Michael Kelly were nowhere to be found. Abraham the interpreter had also gone to ground and when the troops of Dragoons were seen advancing on the column, the slaves started to disappear fast. The poorly armed and inexperienced rebels were no match for the Dragoons and the columns fled in the face of the advancing troops. The soldiers rounded up the slaves and the following day most of the remaining slaves gave themselves up voluntarily at two internment points – Fort Knokke and at Maastricht. The leaders all initially escaped and went to ground. Hooper, Kelly and Abraham were the first to be captured. Louis was tracked down and eventually arrested at a tavern in Wynberg.

Trial & Punishment

With all persons accounted for, interrogations proceeded. Most were judged in a pretrial and in this way the 326 rebels were whittled down to 51 who were selected for the main trial. The five leaders and 46 others were tried in the Court of Justice. Only one was found not guilty of an array of charges.

While the other leaders contradicted each other in court, Louis stood by his beliefs in explaining himself. He argued that he kept discipline in the course of the revolt. He was sincere in his opposition to slavery and believed that he conducted himself well even although the courts labelled the act of rebellion an evil deed. Michael Kelly seemed to have become a turncoat. Abraham made a statement that defined the revolt:

“[T]omorrow when the bloody red flag of battle goes up and the fight for freedom is complete, you will be able to address your mistress as Sij (She) and masters as Jij (He).”

These simple tokens of servitude — calling white masters ‘he’ and ‘she’ instead of the more formal modes of address — persisted as an issue well into the 20th Century.

Sixteen of the rebels were condemned to death by the Court. The Governor, Lord Caledon intervened to commute 11 of the death sentences. Louis of Mauritius, James Hooper, Abraham van der Kaap and Jephta of Batavia were sentenced to death by hanging for their leadership roles. Cupido of Java who had committed rape was also sentenced to death. The suspected sellout, Michael Kelly, mysteriously escaped any sanction and left the Cape. Louis boldly managed to escape from prison after he was condemned but he was apprehended and returned by a reward seeker. Louis’s wife Anna died during the trial after becoming ill, possibly with stress and grief.

The other 46 slaves were given various heavy sentences including imprisonment on Robben Island. Many of these slaves were from Mozambique – known as the Masbiekers – and who were the most down-trodden of slaves at the time. Although the rebellion involved locally born slaves as well as people from the East Indies, Europeans, and indigenous Khoena, it is clear that the most fertile ground for rebellion was the East African slaves of the wheat-belt farm fields because they bore the brunt of the exploitation and cruelty. Urban slavery had already begun to morph into an almost wage-labour mode whereas rural slavery was raw, harsh and humiliating where slaves had little to lose but their chains. These differences in labour conditions persisted into the 20th Century. The majority of the slaves who participated in the revolt were given over to their owners for “correction” by the Governor Lord Caledon.

Central Features of the Revolt

This story of 1808 has everything dramatists dream of… an amazing array of characters, love, anger, dissatisfaction, a revolutionary world climate, the meeting of different cultures, a tavern for the conspiracy, intrigue, clandestine organisation, tragedy, comedy, betrayal, a military clash, internment and interrogation, turncoats, courtroom drama, a prison escape, brutal executions, slavery conditions and the quest for equality and freedom. Yet this story was one of South Africa’s best kept historical secrets simply because it may have provided later generations with a rallying event promoting rebellion.

While the ‘Jij’ rebellion failed in its mission, it resulted in major changes at the Cape. Slaves began to stand up for themselves more and more. Slave owners were more aware that they could be challenged and that the slavery system was unsustainable. The authorities were forced to come up with systems to hear and deal with complaints of slaves. More and more smaller acts of challenge by slaves occurred and another revolt took place in 1825. An abolitionist movement even developed amongst the white settlers. History shows that Louis and the rebels made an indelible impact on slavery conditions and its eventual demise at the Cape.

While other dates relating to freedom from slavery, such as the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation from slavery in 1834 are important, these are legislative dates. Emancipation was only really put into practice in 1838 and slavery only finally petered out in 1870 after the last of the prize slaves’ compulsory indenture periods were completed.

The three days in October 1808 is important because it was a bold act by slaves themselves to claim their own freedom. In a period where the revolutionary words liberty, equality and fraternity was frequently on the lips of many, here in the Cape a group of slave rebels coined their own version of this statement using simple words ‘Jij’ (you or he) and ‘Sij’ (she) to express their desire for equality.

During the trial, the court officials were incensed that one of the slave leaders, Abraham, had incited his fellow slaves by making the statement, “tomorrow when the bloody red flag of battle goes up and the fight for freedom is complete, you will be able to address your owners as Jij or Sij.” The alleged incitement that led to Abraham’s execution, was that he encouraged a fight for freedom and suggested that slaves could use a term of familiarity and equality to address their owners. These simple words were considered to be the greatest act of insolence.

Abraham van de Kaap’s brief quote in the Court records is one of only a very few direct words of the Cape slaves that stands out, but it says it all. These words cost Abraham his life as the court viewed it as treason, sedition, and incitement to an outrageous revolt characterised as ‘evil’. The leadership shown by Louis in his thirst for freedom also cost him his life. Perhaps ever since he arrived as a toddler slave at the Cape he had never known the dignity and freedom that he tasted for just those two days in October 1808. He did not waver when faced with the call to take his place on the freedom road.

After he was hanged his body was slung in chains to rot at the beginning of the Koeberg Road and his head was put on a pike, as deterrent to other slaves.

The Groenkloof (Pretoria) National Heritage Monument has a life size statue of Louis van Mauritius as part of the Long March to Freedom project.

 The Louis van Mauritius story is reflected in exhibits at a museum in Simon’s Town.

The Louis van Mauritius story is reflected in exhibits at a museum in Simon’s Town.


  • George McCall Theal; Records of the Cape Colony (36 Vols) Volume 20; William Clowes and Sons ltd; London; (1900)
  • Hugo de Villiers; Commanding the Archives – A discourse analysis of the 1808 Slave Rebellion at the Cape; Historical Approaches 5; (2007)
  • Jackie Loos; Echoes of Slavery; David Phillip; Cape Town; (2004) Karen Harris; The Slave ‘Rebellion’ of 1808; Kleio 20; (1988)
  • Nigel Worden; The day Cape Slaves made themselves masters – The 1808 Rebellion a dramatic shift in the nature of resistance; Cape Times; (2008)
  • Robert Ross; Cape of Torments; Routledge & Kegan Paul; London; (1983)