The Reverend Samuel Briercliffe in Africa

Ruth Herman

It is always worth looking at how attitudes have evolved and the HALS archives are a rich resource in documentary evidence of this.  One such example is correspondence from the Reverend Samuel Briercliffe, travelling in 1713 to take up a post in India with the nascent East India Company.  He stopped on his way at the Cape of Good Hope, then under the jurisdiction of the Dutch and wrote to the first Earl Cowper with details of the settlement.

The reverend later arrived in Bengal and wrote favourably of the Muslim rulers in the region. He founded a charity school for the Indian settlement in Bengal and he made generous donations despite being of relatively modest means. His attitude towards the slaves in the African colony, however, makes less comfortable reading. As a representative of his own age his description is worth note.

The edited letter is given below:

From Cabo de Boa Esperance[1]  May 17 1713

My Lord

I am arriv’d safe to this coast of Africa but much fatigued with a voyage very tedious to me tho’ I observe pleasure to my brother sailors who think the  passage very expeditious. We have had nothing very remarkable till our putting into the port, which is a settlement belonging to the Dutch and very well fortified being in a manner impregnable to any invasion   The town is situated under a monstrous ridge of rocks which may be plainly be seen at an hundred miles distance in many respects much resembling Dover.  The climate is generally very healthful, tho’ at present there is a sort of a pestilence, which happens to affect none but the natives and them very kind indeed. The Dutch and those that are born here die in great numbers and the Hottentots drop as fast as people in the severest plague, five hundred of ‘em dead within a little space of time insomuch that the Dutch cannot get Hottentots enough to bring up their cattle out of the county.[2]  And there is a distemper likewise as fatal among their cattle, for they have lately lost thirty thousand sheep

The captain and myself when we came ashore intent to wait upon the Governor[3] where we happened to meet with unusual civility, for we were admitted into the Governor’s apartment  and immediately seated down by his worship having a silver spitting-basin plac’d by each chair and then were treated with some liquors what were indeed very strong and much perfum’d.  His Worship could not smile at our European news but he took me by the hand from thence he recommended me to  one black moll (who is married to a Dutchman) She is a tall woman very black having sparkling eyes which, tho’ frightful in her yet could be very killing in an English face.[4]  But she is a very good hostess, and provided for us very splendidly and neat withal.  The herbs and roots we have here are tolerably good, tho’ indeed not equal to those in England: the last of them being not altogether too relishing, and their nature a little hard and sticky, radishes, carrots, turnips, cabbages and some few saladines,[5] their first (I understand) very good, but the season is past, it being that part of their winter, as October is with us, tho’ not near so cold, the place lying some few minutes near 39 degrees, fourth lat. But the sun is very warm about five hours in the day.  The Dutch here have many vineyards belonging to ‘em, both here, and farther in the country from whence they make very good wine, both white and red, much like a small port wine.  They are extremely nice in their houses here (as in Holland) their buildings are not large, the rooms being all upon the base ground, except some few, but none above one storey high.

I could not be too long upon particulars because there are large descriptions in print upon this place, but I cannot pass by the Hottentots who are the very first individuals as our notion is of ‘em. I must own their shape carries some of the human in it, but they are so near brutes in their actions that the law of the Dutch puts any of their own people to death that are familiar with this species of beast.[6]  The African brutes in their complexion are of a very nasty dirty black, they cloath themselves with skins wrapped round em from their shoulders down beneath the centre of their body and from thence downwards [they] have no covering:  they have indeed so much modesty as to hang something over their secret parts which (I believe) they are obliged to by the Dutch.  They are always in motion and in great haste, keeping themselves in a very quick trot. They are very nimble and active and their limbs seem to be designed for swiftness that I suppose had Homer known ‘em, he would have compared Achilles to an Hottentot.  They will run an hundred mille in ten hours with such ease and throw stones with great force and exactness they very often hunt lions and kill em to sell their skins: their hideous cry frighten any wild beast (but themselves) and when they pursue a lion or tiger, they in a manner runs him down, and then soon knock him dead with stones, such an action as this would be brave knight errantry in a European but in them it is only one beast preying upon another their food they always carry  with them which is the guts of any beast wrapped round their bodies. In short, they are miserable wretches and as in ordinary occurrence when I behold any miserable or distressed object I am thankful that I am not in the like deplorable condition but since I have been in this place I heartily thank God that I am not a Hottentot.



[1] The Cape of Good Hope was originally discovered and named by the Portuguese.

[2] Gainouqua tribe that lived east of the Kogouquas brought large numbers of cattle to the Fort.

[3] Willem Helot (acting governor from February 1711- March 1714)

[4] She was obviously not a slave.

[5] Old word for celandine which was used in cooking.

[6] In 1678, and again in1681, the first Cape placaeten which forbade Company employees and free burghers from having intercourse with female slaves was enforced.

This page was added on 12/04/2017.

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  • The ‘black moll’ with the sparkling eyes was Maria Everts, a truly remarkable woman. She was born into slavery (her parents were Evert and Anna of Guinea, brought to the Cape in May 1658) yet she ended up one of the Cape’s wealthiest land owners in her own right. She was not married to the Dutchman Bastiaen Colijn, with whom she had five children, but records show that her property included what is now the very prestigious Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay (not to mention 10 slaves of her own) while Colijn possessed nothing but a sword, flintlock and pistol… It was her son, Johannes Colijn, who first made Constantia wine internationally famous, and her descendants would farm in Constantia (making the legendary wine) until the mid 1850s. It’s wonderful to have this description of her by Samuel Briercliffe.

    By Joanne Gibson (19/07/2018)