Damon – The Malabar Slave

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Read this characterization of a Slave from Malabar (Walks & Sketches – Robert Semple) – He is in all respects the best of the household slaves. Without the inactivity or the dullness of the Mozambique slave, or the penetrative genius of the Malay, he forms an excellent medium between the two. More intelligent, more industrious and more active than the former, more docile and more affectionate than the latter, he unites steadiness with vivacity, and capability of instructing to wining manners.
This story outlines the life of many slaves who were taken by the Dutch & Portuguese slave traders to Cape Town, Africa, Mauritius and many other places between the late 1600’s and early 1800’s. Cochin was a shipment point for different types of slaves by the VOC. Those who went to the far eastern countries and the West Indies integrated with the local populace to some extent, but whatever happened to the many that went to Africa? Some of them have presented us in history with tales of persistence, valor and extreme hardship. Read on.

Between 1626 and 1662, the Dutch exported with reasonable regularity 150–400 slaves annually from the Arakan-Bengal coast. Slave raids into the Bengal estuaries were conducted by Magh pirates using armed vessels (galias), joining hands with unscrupulous Portuguese traders (chatins) and operating from Chittagong outside the jurisdiction and patronage of the Estado da India. Until the Dutch seizure of the Portuguese settlements on the Malabar coast (1658–63), large numbers of slaves were also captured and sent from India's west coast to Batavia, Ceylon, and elsewhere. After 1663, however, the stream of forced labor from Cochin dried up to a trickle of about 50–100 and 80–120 slaves per year to Batavia and Ceylon, respectively
Modus Operandi (Reference Van Rensburg papers) –

Starting around 1652, the VOC started active slave trading, sourcing the slaves from Indonesia, Bengal and Malabar. Innocent children were kidnapped by the Mohammedans and sold at Cochin to the Dutch, then they were send to Batavia or the Cape, reference Adoor KK Ramachandran Nair in his book Slavery in Kerala, p 16. The VOC sent custom built ships (Fly boats or Fluyt boats) and brought back these slaves to Cape Town under miserable conditions where many died during the voyage due to sickness.

Upon arrival the slaves were sold to ‘burghers’ from Netherlands working in Cape Town. Then started the ordeal without an end where they were sold and resold. Punishment was severe for escaping, typically mutilation, whipping, death and long term incarceration wearing heavy chains. Yet many escaped to remote parts of Africa to live short periods of freedom in dense jungles, only to be caught again.

The women slaves and their daughters had no choice; they mostly became lovers of the burghers. Later, burghers as Rensburg explains, preferred marriages to women from these mixed unions, in other words these women were then classified as 'van de Kaap' (note this term did not only refer to people of black or mix ancestry). Curiously at the Cape the legal line of descent for both slaves and free citizens were matrilineal, following the Malabar practice, which is by virtue of who their mother was. If the father was free, but the mother a slave, then the child was a slave. If the mother was free, but the father was a slave, then the child was free. These Malabar slaves were also called Maroon slaves for their tawny color.

The story of Damon - Let us look at the incredible story of the slave from Malabar who is otherwise titled the ‘Damon slave’ in history (extracted from the book).

In the early 1800s, while exploring the areas of Van Plettenburg and the dense forests to the East, three high ranking officials (Col Collins, Dr Dowdray and Andries Stockenstrom stumbled on the dwelling of an escaped Malabar slave who had lived in the forests for six years before he was recaptured. This extraordinary man as the travelers described him was brought to them heavy with chains, so that they might acquire some information respecting the country. He was named Damon from Malabar for he was found near the Damon fountain. As the name suggests, he originated from Malabar.

Here is a more detailed story extracted from Col John Sutherland’s notes & other books that I perused for this purpose.

Damon the slave had a friend with him when he first came to the Zitzakamma woods (now Southern George - Storms River). However he died soon after and Damon lived in a small but hidden cave (or hut) in the woods. Later on, after over five years of solitude and after developing more confidence, he started to build a better and bigger one with his own hands. Damon had concluded that he would spend his lonely days in it in relative peace. It was while he was midway into construction (I am sure that was what kept him sane – the building work) of his humble abode that he got caught by the Kaffers (African natives or Hottentots – they were termed Kaffers by early Portuguese voyagers).

Damon was in ingenious man; for he used the skins of all the animals he caught (using pits and snares) to make fashionable ‘western style’ clothes. The bones were all carefully heaped in a spot. He had cleared at least two acres which he had planted with vegetables, tobacco and fruit trees using the dung of the numerous elephants and buffalo in the area, as manure. Our friend even made baked earthenware for cooking his food. The stream that supplied him with water lies about 16km west of the Storms River (or Doll or Kaeman River near the Outinuqua mountains) and is now called the Damon’s fountain. This man had committed no crime prior to his flight; his only desire was to be a free man, wishing trouble for no one. Collins originally decided to keep him, but fearing that Damon would inform others of the location or help them, sent him off to Cape Town

Further study revealed that the man was probably from Cochin or Malabar and knew about farming & agriculture. He must have been toiling in some wealthy landowner’s lands in Malabar before he was caught and shipped to Africa. The Kaffers caught him and turned him over to Col Collins only for the purpose of a reward. At their direction he was sent to the cape ‘there to be charged or otherwise disposed of.

He was considered very interesting and energetic by Collins, 40 years, dark and muscular, very animated, and he informed Collins that he had a fearful life, pursued often by buffaloes, which charged & destroyed his hut many times. When he ran away from enslavement, he had only a handful of seeds and the vegetable garden that Collins saw was a result of his planting and nurturing them (imagine his thought process before his flight!).

At least he was not; I believe ‘hung in chains in the open on gibbets to be eaten by birds’ as many other slaves were sentenced. Henry Rikes (Brenton memoirs) states that he was (probably on Collin’s recommendation) released from his owner Petrus Terblans in 1809 by the Colonial government who directed that this land be purchased for him and thus he became a resident of George (a place 240km away from Cape Town). Col Sutherland later heard that Damon was building a house there & that he had offspring. So that was a good end to the arduous life & travel of this 45 year old slave.

I was waylaid a bit when I found that another Damon from Malabar was banished to Robben Island 12km away from Cape Town to work in chains for 15 years more without wages (1793 Cape records). Nelson Mandela incidentally, was also interred in Robben Island for 27 years. Today Robben Island, thanks to Nelson Mandela is a tourist attraction, but many would never have heard the story of this Damon from Malabar.

A thought - Compare this slave’s life to the life led by Tom Hanks in the film Castaway and try to imagine the hardships Damon endured.

Summary of numbers -ES Reddy in his collection of Indo African papers states that some 1300 plus Indian slaves (a full 37% of the total slaves from Africa India, Indonesia and Ceylon) were brought in between 1658 and 1760 and out of this Indian total, 500 came from the Bengal area and 400 plus from Malabar!! The slaves were invariably given Christian Dutch names but their places of origin were indicated in the records of sales and other documents. Worden however concludes that between 1697 and 1750, a higher number 48% (673) of the sample of 1,401 slaves came from the Indian subcontinent (mostly Bengal and Malabar),

Read through Cape town records - There are so many slaves from Malabar mentioned in that turbulent period; slaves like Cupido, Catherine, Helena, Peter, Jan, Joaun, and most of them met violent death by hanging for trying to escape. These people lost their identity, their very names, their religion and their culture. The women got integrated into the Dutch community and some genealogy is available as in the case of Catherine.

Reddy adds - Most slaves however, dispersed and lost their identity in the course of time. The Indians became part of the "Malay" community - so called as Malayo-Portuguese was the lingua franca in the Asian ports at that time - and their descendants later came to be identified as "Cape Malays" (Cape Muslims) as the Muslim community expanded.

After looking at the numbers of slaves from India and the spread, I wondered, well, this was yet another occasion when Bengali’s and Malayali’s are grouped together. Normally they are grouped when it comes to food habits, intellect, political leanings and the such. Yes, there were contacts between the Bengali’s and Malyali’s from historical times when trade linked them, rice from Bengal and Orissa passed Calicut in the trading Chinese ships. Yes they are also well known (i.e. Malayali’s and Bengal’s) for their consciousness of individual rights wherever they are. Did it perhaps originate from the slave days? Or was it that they were brought together by the British who starting from Malabar moved on from Telicherry and Calicut to Calcutta which was their next commercial and political capital? Who knows!!! Food for thought.

Trivia - The Khoi-Khoi, for instance, developed the ramkie, a guitar with three or four strings, based on that of Malabar slaves, and used it to blend Khoi and Western folk songs. I guess it is the Paana veena that we know.

ReferencesThe Garden Route and Little Karoo - By Leon Nell Pg 100
John Sutherland Memoirs
Henry Rikes – Brenton memoirs
ES Reddy – Collection of Indo African Papers
Cape of Torments – Robert Ross
Walks & Sketches – Robert Semple
Van Rensburg site
Iziko site -

Pictures from ‘google images’ – thanks to the uploaders.


  1. Sarah

    Maddy: I had read somewhere that Dutch took locals as servants while they were in India and those servants followed their masters when they returned to Holland assuming that they would be granted the same rights they had in India.
    Slavery was phohibited in Holland and those Dutch masters sold the slaves to those in Capetown for a large sum of money and the slaves lost their rights...
    I never knew about the second Damon you mentioned. Any idea what happened to him after the 15 years of chained labour?

  1. Maddy

    thanks Sarah

    i do not know if servants were always taken back to Holland. may have been. But there was a regular slave trade with cape town where organized sales took place.

    A few went to Netherlands with the burghers - check the Van Rensberg site, you can get the story of Catherine of Malabar. Rensenberg carries her genes!!

    No I do not know what happened to Damon who was sent to Robben Island, though i searched hard. I think that would necessitate a trip to Africa!! some day I guess!

  1. Maddy

    the link to the rensbrug's


  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    Thanks for writing about the Ancient Slave Route.
    What about the slaves taken to Fiji,Trinidad and likes to work in the sugar cane plantations? Were they also from Malabar and Bengal?

    I always thought slaves from Malabar were taken to Ceylon and Malaya.

    I have even read in The Hindu that Mahathir Mohammed is a sixth generation Malayalee.That again should have a slave connection, right?

    Slave no.7367:Is a Sardarji?


  1. Maddy

    Nikhil - I have not reached there yet, those are more recent and secondly I would not treat them as slaves. They were mainly british coolies or workers, in fiji & west indies. they were from the 1850-1870 period. Fiji alone had some 65000 from india out of which 45000 were from north india and the rest from the south.

    From what i saw it was mainly tamil & others, not malabar, but surely there were many from malabar too.

    I think the malabar group went towards malay, ceylon etc, to work in tea plantations.

    regarding the dutch times, a huge number of malabar slaves went to ceylon, but i deliberately did not cover that aspect as i was concentrating on the cape story with Damon. Also a second reason, ceylon was more like a a distant state anyway in terms of terrian food culture etc..in those times. The poor cheruman in those cases just travelled a few 100 miles south that was all.

    yes MM's story is connected with indentured labor. i heard rumors that adid from somalia too had origins in malabar/malappuram.

    the picture comes from a picture book by a great s African writer of indian origin. I never could lay hands on that book except for this picture. I have noidea if it was a sardarji, but i doubt it. remember that cutting hair was not the norm.

  1. Maddy

    the book is 'from cane fields to freedom' by Uma dhupelia, a fine writer.

  1. Sagarone

    I have been going thru your blog, one post at a time and I am impressed by the amount of research you must have undertaken. Keep it up.

  1. poor-me/പാവം-ഞാന്‍

    Following past is interesting.
    thanks for making me thinking this way.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Interesting. In fact the most prized slaves in Africa came from Java, Bali, Nagapattinam, Bengal and Malabar. They were known after the places of their origin - Paulus van Malabar, Lisbeth van Bengalen etc.
    Slavery was prohibited in Malabar by the Joint Commissioners in 1792 but it continued till the middle of 1800s.
    But there were some enlightened administrators. Lachlan Macquarie was appointed in 1794 as Captain of his Regiment in Calicut. While proceeding there, he had purchased two slaves from Cochin. But under the influence of his wife, he set them free and got them enrolled in a parish school in Bombay. He continued his abolitionist zeal when he went to Australia as Governor in 1810.

  1. Maddy

    thnaks CKR - when you say slavery was prohibited in malabar in 1792, did you mean slavery in malabar or the slave running that i was covering? I guess it must be both..I read recently an avccount of the many african slaves who were quartered in the basement of a bunglow in cochin.. and I was wondering, now why were they brought there by the dutch? I guess to be sold to the mughal palaces & other rajas up north!!

  1. Indrani

    I was never aware of all these details. And funny thinking about Malayalis and Bengalis grouped together in slavery too. :)

  1. Katie

    My dad is a coloured with no known indian ancestry I had his y-dna tested recently he was H1b[India]what a shock it was to him but no doubt here lies the root.Sad and strong as it is.

  1. Maddy

    Hi Katie - that is very interesting, but then much of the world has intermingled at some time, someway or the other..Especially if you look in Europe, you will find many links to India through diverse sources... including the Romanay's...

  1. Maddy

    Life is always full of surprises..

    Two days back I got this mail from a descendant of Damon!!!

    My name is Patrick Damoyi (Damon, Damian) or any other surname you can call me with. I have seen you writings about my Great grand Father. He was a Lascar that was later saved and ran way from the cape slavery, He was from Malay, survived the Grosvena

  1. Katie

    no he is from cape town as is my mother,and my mother and I both showed strong indian ancestry autosomally [dna],I had never known of the huge input of indian slaves to SA,nor that I had indian ancestry.Slavery was never talked about and I grew up in Australia.

    Interestingly I had always thought my mother looks a female version of ravi shankar [bengali] and I like norah jones.Often I've been told I have been mistaken for part indian etc and use to dream of old indian men when i was very young,now I know why.The difficult part is that I will never know where they were from or who they were.

  1. Anil Nair

    Maddy, Looks like this blog is used as a reference in an article in this weeks Mayhrubhumi Weekly- ��