Illegitimacy and Family Formation in Colonial Cape Town, to C. 1850

By Malherbe, Vertrees C. | Journal of Social History, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Illegitimacy and Family Formation in Colonial Cape Town, to C. 1850


Malherbe, Vertrees C., Journal of Social History


For 143 years after European settlement in 1652 the Cape of Good Hope was governed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a chartered company of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. (2) Founded as a refreshment station for Company fleets, bound for the VOC's eastern empire, the town which began as a fort and garden spread to fill the mountain-flanked bowl which faced on Table Bay. In 1806, as a result of the internecine conflict besetting Europe, the British took possession of the Cape station and retained it as a colony throughout the 1800s. This article investigates family formation in Cape Town through the lens of illegitimacy, amongst a population which was, for most of the period under review, part free and part slave.

The chief sources for this inquiry are the church baptismal registers and records of "hands-on" responses to the moral and other issues raised by out-of-wedlock births. Charges of seduction, defloration and breach of promise which resulted in illegitimacy are scattered among the cases heard by the VOC's Court of Justice and, after the late 1820s when the British overhauled the justice system, by the magistrates' courts and the Supreme Court of the Cape. The records of the Orphan Chamber, Colonial Office and other government departments afford glimpses of the social milieu, and the considerations which shaped policy respecting marriage and related issues such as adultery, judicial separation and divorce. Researchers have little option but to embrace Peter Laslett's appreciation of the available sources, however scant: "It is difficult to exaggerate the value of lists of inhabitants to the sociological historian. Even the bare copying out of names can tell him a great deal, if he treats the evidence imaginatively...." (3)

The first two sections which follow set the scene respecting the law which applied to marriage, concubinage and out-of-wedlock births under the Dutch VOC and, later, British rule. "Forming families at the Cape of Good Hope" compares certain characteristics of the metropoles, and of the VOC at Batavia, with the society which came into being at Cape Town. Although settler genealogy is well documented, reconstituting the families formed by slaves, freed slaves and the white or "mixed race" underclass presents many challenges. Quantifying illegitimacy is fundamental to that project and an exercise in measurement, using baptismal and marriage registers, is undertaken here. The next two sections examine the partnerships formed in and out of wedlock by Europeans with the freed slaves (vryswarte) and their descendants, and the tensions between the European marriage model and the pattern of out-of-wedlock births among Cape Town families. To conclude, those features which distinguished family formation at Cape Town by the mid-1800s, and some directions for further inquiry, are pointed out.

Marriage, concubinage and illegitimacy under VOC rule

The Roman-Dutch law, which the VOC introduced at the Cape, defined a legal marriage as that between a man and a woman of full age (or with the requisite permissions if the parties were minors), who did not fall within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity or affinity and were not pre-contracted to another partner. After an affianced pair had satisfied the Matrimonial Court on these and other points, the banns (which gave notice of the proposed union) were published on three occasions. (4) When all the conditions had been met, the marriage was solemnized in church. These requirements were the outcome of a history of give-and-take by the proponents of ecclesiastical and secular interests. From time immemorial, the essential ingredient of marriage was consent: all other requirements were constructions which moulded marriage to the purposes of church or state.

Until the late 1700s, when the right of public worship was extended to Lutherans, legal marriage was vested in the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NHK) which, for its part, reserved the privilege for persons whom it had baptized. …

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