Manumission Documents

Manumission Documents

14.4cm x19.8cm: Baptismal Certificate
31,8cm x20cm: Reply from the Cape Colonial Office
31.9cm x24cm: Certificate of Manumission
These documents are the property of Iziko Museums. Should you wish to make use of them in any manner, permission must be obtained from Iziko Museums.

Object Domicile

Collection Name: Slave Related Documents.
Name of the Repository: Iziko Social History Centre
GPS: Latitude: -33.92557482092594
Longitude: 18.422291278839115

Object Origin

Cape Colonial Office,
Cape Town,
City Centre
Latitude: -33.9330933
Longitude: 18.4105658 29.06.1823-Baptismal Certificate for Anne Gerrard. 14.08.1823- Reply from the Cape Colonial Office. 19.08.1823 - Manumission Certificate for Anne Gerrard is issued.

One of the recommendations of the Cape Colonial Office concerning slave Manumission was baptism. The slave master had to make sure that the slave was baptized and had a baptismal Certificate. Anne Gerrard was baptised on the 29th of June 1823, according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

The reply from the Cape Colonial Office was drafted on 14 August 1823. It is a testimony to Mr. FG Powley to manumit a female slave named Hennie.

On the 19th of August 1823 Mr Francis Gerrard Powley manumits his slave Hennie, alias Anne Gerrard, born in the Cape Colony, aged 8 years. This document was issued by the Office of Enregisterment of Slaves, Folio 57, no 344.The document was signed by G I Rogers, who was an Inspector at the offices. The master was required to submit the Baptismal Certificate and then get a response from the Colonial Office approving the Baptismal Certificate.

Paper Trails of Repeated Oppressions

On the 26th of October 2006 Brian McCarthy from London, United Kingdom donated three slave-related documents to the Iziko Social History Centre. These documents are records which serve as the primary proof of slave transactions from the 19th Century. How did these documents end up in his possession? What influenced him to donate them to the Social History Centre? What were the circumstances that gave rise to the possession of slave documents by individuals? Did they collect them? Or inherit them? How then do we also understand the role played by individuals such as Mr. Brian McCarthy who made the meaningful decision to donate them to the institution?

In this collection I have three slave-related documents from the Cape in the 19th Century: a baptismal certificate, a reply from the colonial office, and a manumission certificate. These documents have the musty smell of oncoming rains. At first glance, they entice the audience to read them. Unlike other museum objects, which can be interpreted subjectively, documents require the visitor to read them and understand their story. Except for the manumission certificate, which was typed, the cursive handwriting on the other two documents is not quite legible. It is almost a form of hieroglyphics. Each of these documents had the authority to significantly influence legal, historical or religious issues. These documents are testimonies of what happened, but the gaps of the narratives that they omit are glaring.

The baptism document certifies that Ann Gerrard of the Cape was baptised according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church on 29 June 1823. It was signed by P. H. Scully and has on it a large – relative to the size of the cut paper – black VOC seal. Scully was a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in the Cape at that time. During the times of slavery in Cape Town the general approach, as was the case elsewhere, was that once an enslaved person was baptised and became a Christian, he or she was entitled to certain rights enjoyed by people who were free. According to the 1770 Statutes of India, the baptism of slaves meant that masters could not sell them, and had to liberate them (Rugarli, 2008). Even slave masters in other parts of the world were not supposed to tamper with their status as freed slaves (Theal, 1964).

The document from the Cape Colonial Office was drafted on 14 August 1823. It is a testimony to Mr F. G. Powley to manumit a female slave named Hennie. Normally one would have to make a payment of 50 rixdollars to the Church (‘rixdollars’ was the English term for coins used throughout the European continent that were also used in most Dutch colonies from the 17th Century). The memorialist, however, produced a copy of the baptism certificate to the Office of the Enregisterment of Slaves in Cape Town, and in turn the manumission was granted without payment to the church. It was signed by the governor, C. Bird, and carries the seal of the Dutch East India Company (commonly known as the VOC) and the Cape colonial office.

The Certificate of Manumission was issued by the Office for the Enregisterment of Slaves as Folio 57, no. 344 on 19 August 1823. It was signed by the Inspector, G. I. Rogers, and bears the seals of the VOC and the Cape colonial government (British rule). The certificate serves as the testimony of Mr Francis Gerrard Powley in freeing his slave, Hennie, alias Ann Gerrard, born in the Cape Colony, who was eight years old at the time.

These documents were donated to the Iziko Social History Centre on the 26th of October 2006 by Brian McCarthy of London, U. K. The documents are housed, together with other paper-based collections, in the Iziko Social History Centre, and are now cared for by Iziko conservators and collections staff. These collections include other documents related to the colonial period in South Africa, including but not limited to slavery-related documents. These documents are archives that serve as primary proof of the transactions that took place in the 18th and 19th Century. I became interested in these documents because of their potential to provide clues into my research project about the São José shipwreck, for which I had found no documentation about the slaves on board at the time of the shipwreck.

In one of her writings on women and slavery in the Cape, Anna Rugarli (2008) states that the baptism of slaves meant that their masters could not sell them, and in turn had to emancipate them. Although the baptism of slaves at the Cape was upheld by the authorities, the rights of the freed slaves remained nominal, as Masters would not consider slaves having the same status as themselves. They associated the term ‘white’ with christened and civilised, and ‘slave’ with heathen (Rugarli, 2008). While slave owners generally believed that slaves gained civil status through baptism, and could no longer be sold and were to be regarded respectfully rather than as mere chattel, freed slaves were still regarded as people of a lower class. Thus, Baptism at the Cape was more a claim to ethnic ancestry, as it was perceived not only as a signifier of divine redemption, but also as a primary symbol of the civic incorporation of slaves, and people of non-Christian descent. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, slave baptism was practised at the Cape by an insignificant number of slave owners, but this shifted towards the end of the century as slaves were baptised only if they were inherited, or their masters wanted to legitimise them.

In manumission, a slave was set free, but the practice of slavery continued. Some slaves were manumitted as a reward for hard work. In other instances, a master who fell in love with a slave would buy her freedom so that he could marry her. A master’s supposed benevolence might also lead to the emancipation of a slave, though such cases were rare. Generally, slaves were freed due to old age. We can only speculate on the reasons for Hennie’s manumission, as they are not stated in the document.

Manumission was very uncommon at the Cape. It is believed that only about fourteen slaves were freed each year during the eighteenth century. There were restrictions on the freeing of slaves. In a chapter on slaves in the Cape and manumission, Bank (1991 :179) states that:

The reasons for the increase in the rate and number of manumissions at the Cape in the early nineteenth century relate directly to period-specific legislation. On the one hand, the abolition of the slave trade and consequent trend towards creolization and the equalization of sex ratios had a dual impact in facilitating higher rates of manumission, since there was a universal bias in slaveholding societies (and the Cape was no exception in this regard) towards the liberation of female and of native-born slaves. On the other hand, and more significantly, the removal of a series of legislative obstacles deterring owners from manumitting their slaves and the opening of a new escape hatch to freedom via Ordinance 19 was responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of manumissions in the late 1820s. In the wake of Ordinance 19 of August 1826, a growing number of urban slaves were able to use their kinship ties to procure their freedom.

Manumission also occurred within a broader context as new legislation was passed. As such, the slave owners did not have much of a choice but to follow the laws of the time.

One of the conditions for manumission in the Cape was that the slave had to be able to speak the slave master’s language – normally, slaves had to speak Dutch, and show that they were either able to earn a living or had money to take care of themselves for the rest of their lives. This condition was implemented to reduce the number of manumissions of slaves who would not be able to look after themselves, and to prevent slave owners from freeing slaves just to be rid of the responsibility of caring for them in their old age, when they could not work anymore (Iziko: online).

Manumission certificates were to be produced as proof whenever a manumitted slave was accused of escaping; it was a legitimate document with evidential value that the master had freed the slave, although they carried no clear explanation as to why the master had freed the slave. Copies of these documents were housed at the Cape Colonial Office. This practice provides a haunting parallel with the law that ‘non-whites’ had to carry passes at all times under apartheid.

Although the Dutch and British competed for colonial spheres of influence around the world, these documents all bear the seals of both the VOC and the British colonial government. This can be read as proof of a strong connection between the Dutch and the British, who otherwise would have been rivals in the colonial business. I am fascinated why the two are represented in the same document. I am similarly intrigued by the relationship between the donor, Brian McCarthy, and Iziko South African Museums. There is no concrete relationship between these two, apart from the fact that he is one of many donors to have provided items to be housed in Iziko collections. It is not clear how the documents ended up in his possession; whether he received the documents as gifts or otherwise – as slaves might similarly be donated or inherited. Perhaps his ancestors owned slaves.

In order to understand the present, we need to understand the past, and documents can help us do that. The Company’s records were selective and contained what was deemed to be useful. Slaves appear by name in criminal records, random slave lodge lists and in memorials, mostly as candidates for manumission or as assets in business transactions or inventories. The company’s records appear less useful as numbers in census returns and population statistics (Loos, 2018: online). Thus, there are no existing records about slaves outside of manumissions. This makes it difficult to understand the transactions made during the time of slavery, as the contents of the documents under discussion reveal little beyond title, date, a description of the transaction, signatures and the names of the involved parties. It is frustratingly short of information that might help us understand how and why the masters freed their slaves.

One further wonders why there is only one signature on the documents. Were these slaves forced into baptism for the benefit of their masters, in terms of tax payment? It would also be interesting to track the route that these documents took, from the archives of the Cape colony to London, and then back to Cape Town to the archives of Iziko Museums of South Africa. Lastly, one cannot ignore the continuation of colonial practices in the apartheid era, in so far as the issuing of passbooks can be related to the manumission documents; as freed slaves had to carry these documents with them as proof of their emancipation. The lack of census returns and population status also parallels with the apartheid regime, which did not keep census figures of Blacks for planning purposes in the later years. Research on these documents will reveal more on the missing information around the slave-related documents.



Bank, A. 1991. Slavery in Cape Town 1806 to 1834. Manummisions: The Nature of Manumissions. Cape Argus.

Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Heritage of Slavery in South Africa. Slavery At the Cape: Emancipation. Available: [3 September 2018].

King’s College. Introduction to Archives. Available: [6 September 2018]

Kronos, W. 2014. Cape Slaves in the Paper Empire of the VOC. SciELO – Scientific Electronic Library Online. 2018. Available: [4 September 2018].

Loos, J. 2018. The Way we Were: Making Sense of Slave Records in the WC Archive. IOL 15 February. Available: [4 September 2018].

Rugarli, A. M. 2008. Historical Relevance? Ten Sketches of Women Illegally Enslaved at the Cape, 1823 to 1830. Historical Demography, Statistics.

South African History Online. 2015. The First Slaves at the Cape. Available: [4 September 2018].

South African History Online. 2015. The Early Cape Slave Trade. Available: [5 September 2018].

Theal, G. M. 1964. History of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik

Theal, G. M. Records of the Cape Colony, vols. 6-36.


Paper and ink originally came from Britain to Cape Town.

Documents travelled from Cape Town to Britain, London.

Documents travelled from London to Cape Town (Iziko Social History Centre).


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