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Number 79377 In memory of Lydia Williams ex-Cape-slave woman

  • Posted on June 25, 2013

On a rainy Wednesday morning 17 April 2013 I walked into the Maitland cemetery offices believing that I was going to find unmarked grave 79377A of ex-Cape Town slave woman Lydia Williams who was affectionately known as ‘Ou Tamelytjie’. On the first day of December every year she invited all ex-slaves and friends to her cottage to celebrate their freedom from slavery. I trusted my sources who to this day tirelessly work towards honouring the life that she lived and the positive impact she had made to so many who lived at the time of slavery and Emancipation at the Cape. One such honouring is M.I Weeder book A Soujourn along the Path of Memory: An Outline of the Life of Lydia Williams, An Ex-slave woman.
The workers at the office tried to convince me to come back the following day as the person that could assist had not come to work that day. But I was not going to take no for an answer, so I persuaded them to open their big book so that I could see her name recorded there. And so I did. It read A17.6 .1910 Lydia Williams, the day of her passing. At that point I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt inspired at eventually finding her grave and on the other hand, anticipation at not. It is difficult to explain.

Lydia’s world like many others was shaped by the forces of bondage which they could never really escape from. After all there were once more slaves than free people at the Cape in the late 1700s. Some were stolen from their homes in other lands, bought, sold and incarcerated on this land. This scenario explains a volatile existence for ex-slaves at the Cape pre and post emancipation.  Lydia’s life, like many others’, is just a footnote in most South African’s memory. Deep wounds and trauma were forced upon her psyche. Much has been written and tributes made about Lydia’s life from historians, clergy, museums, artists and academics to local researchers, yet she continues to remain a number hidden amongst unmarked graves.

Trekking for about one and a half hours to and fro to gate 9 I again made my way back to the office in search of some constructive assistance. I tried to find her unmarked grave on my own not wanting anybody else to share in my reward, but I could not. Once there I found an old man who I did not see when I came in the first time who knew more than the men that had tried to assist me before. After calm persuasion and charm I decided to briefly tell him Lydia’s story and made mention that she could have been his very own forbearer. This made him twitch. Immediately he picked up his stick as he had a limp and followed me to the nearest number to Lydia’s which I had found earlier. I walked ahead passing grave after grave recognizing some I had passed earlier.

We started a conversation which took us to Woodstock or the old Papendorp which he knew very well from visiting friends on a regularly basis over many years and mentioning that District Six was a people’s place where all were welcome. He had a twinkle in his eyes when he spoke about the good old days, a nostalgia I thought profound. I knew then that I would not leave this cemetery unless I have found Lydia’s grave. We searched for about 15 minutes and found nothing. I decided to stay at the stop nearest to the number I found while the old man made notes of other gravestones in the surrounds then walked back to the office in search of a measuring tape.

On his return we counted down the numbers with the measuring tape and lo and behold we found a space that might be Lydia’s grave at gate 9 near a tree and opposite a gravestone which read Bruce. It was interesting. The old man helped me to border the grave with leaves and twigs wanting me to answer more of his questions about Lydia, which I did briefly until he realised I needed to be alone.

I took off my back pack, opened up my bag to look at Lydia’s picture and tried to imagine her life born into slavery. She was only fourteen years old when the institution of slavery was abolished and a young woman of eighteen when the period of apprenticeship was terminated which was after a four year period from 1834-1838.

We know that the abolitionist British entered the fray on the side of the former slave owners and Dutch East Indian Company thus seeing to it that the outcome or apprenticeship would not favor the slaves. Rigid social and political contractions between former master and former slaves gave rise to racist ideologies and classificatory divisions. The former slaves’ economic dependence and insecurity survived the end of slavery in the Master Servants Act Ordinance (1842) that mostly supported the perpetual slave mentality that has lasted up until the twenty first century. (See Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa by John Edwin Mason, 2003).

The government did not provide any land or money to help freed slaves to set up businesses on farms. Many slaves were forced to return to their previous owners or to other farmers as wage laborers. Even those who worked on mission stations had to work as casual laborers on surrounding farms.

“An Act for the Abolition of slaves throughout the British colonies, for promoting the Industry of manumitted Slaves, and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves” [28th August 1833]’ was a farce and humiliating for freed slaves at the Cape justifying the institution of slavery. Freedom for slaves was a non-event. (See People of the Western Cape: A History for Schools by A. Bank, C. Malherbe and P. van der Spuy, 2003).

27 April 2013 was ‘Freedom’ Day which unfortunately for some of us is on a Saturday not a paid holiday as we go about as if it is just another one of those weekend specials, eating and drinking. For me it was be a day of remembering Lydia and many others who struggled against injustice all their lives many times putting others before themselves.  It is noted that she still bore the whip marks on her back wielded by her master and her child sold to other owners. Yet what does freedom mean to us descendants of slaves at the Cape today who do not have a clue who we are and where we come from? Freedom Day needs to be understood by us in Cape Town. A useful introduction to this slave heritage is An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery by Alan Mountain, 2004, which includes a guide to slave heritage sites in the Western Cape.

Lucelle Campbell is an Archival Platform correspondent with a special interest in the history of slavery in the Western Cape.

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  • Dear Lucelle
    I like reading the story about the Lydia Williams. It is interessting how many such stories of woman are there through all the history time layers in South Africa.
    Kind regards
    mmiems lamprecht

    By miems lamprecht on 06/08/2013
  • I am so happy to have found this report! Thank you and congratulations, Miems Lamprecht.

    By Aubrey Springveldt on 28/11/2013
  • Thank you so much for this! I enjoyed reading this, as I grew up in SA at the time of apartheid and had a rough time once I realised the inequalities inherent in the then status quo and perceived the racist attitudes of my parents and my grandparents. We took a one way passage out in 1988.

    By Anne Clarke on 29/03/2014