People Of Bondage The Dispute Over Baptism

Walled execution grounds outside the Castle

Walled execution grounds outside the Castle

The question whether and when slaves should be baptised kept the church and the colonists occupied until well in the nineteenth century. Baptism was an important ritual acting as a condition for the exercise of many rights (see Burgher rights). At the Synod of Dordt held in 1618–1619 the Reformed Church in the Netherlands agreed that all heathen children in a household, whether slave or free, should enjoy the right of Christian instruction. But it was the head of that household, not the Church and not the parents of the child, who had the primary responsibility for deciding about baptising slaves and heathens.

It was also decided that baptised slaves ‘should enjoy equal rights with other Christians’. Baptised slaves could not be sold to heathens, but could be passed to other Christians by inheritance or gift. There was no clear agreement on the proper age at which a slave should be baptised and no mention of how these precepts were to be enforced. All these matters were left to the head of the household.

By about 1725, it had become clear that some owners were denying their infant slaves the right to baptism. Otto Mentzel, writing of the 1740s, noted, ‘It is a matter for regret that the children born in slavery are neither baptised nor given any religious instruction. There is a common and well-grounded belief that Christians must not be held in bondage; hence only such children as are intended for emancipation are baptised.’ The Church records show a clear trend toward fewer baptisms over the century.

Most slave owners did not bother with their slaves’ baptism at all. By the late eighteenth century, pews specially built for slaves in the Mother Church (Moederkerk) of Cape Town were empty Sunday after Sunday. While no slave owner, no matter how cynical, would dare claim that slaves had no right to baptism, the owner could justify a delay in baptism by arguing that slaves should be instructed before they were baptised. Then the slave owner could, through endless domestic ruses, postpone bringing the slaves into the Christian community and thereby avoid any risk of reducing the marketability of his slaves. Put in purely materialistic terms: slaves were safer investments if they were not Christian, a conviction that continued until emancipation.

Of the 2 543 slave baptisms from 1652 to 1795, 1 715 were of slave children belonging to the Dutch East India Company – an average of one per month. These Lodge slaves were considered part of the ‘household’ of the Company, and all slaves born into the household of the Lodge were baptised. This meant that private owners baptised a total of 828 slaves– an average of less than nine a year. Of the few slave owners who did baptise their infant slaves, most were wealthy individuals

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