In South African history, the illiterate Maria Mouton has earned a unique notoriety by being the only white woman to be executed in the Cape Colony during the eighteenth century. Her primary offence was to conspire with one of her husband’s slaves to murder her husband, Frans Jooste. For that she deserved the ultimate sanction at the time, the death penalty. Be that as it may but what was deeply vexing for the unctuous court was that it considered Maria’s actions of willingly consorting with her co-accused, the dark-hued slave Titus of Bengal, beyond the bounds of propriety. For Cape Society, that act was truly beyond the pale.
For no other reason, this story makes for compelling reading. As Nigel Penn eloquently states, “Her lustful and murderous conduct, her intercourse with a dark-skinned bondsman, was betrayal of both her gender and her social group. Colonial society as a whole was threatened by her actions”.
Main picture: Slaves during this era were an integral part of society as is visible in this painting
This episode enables the 21th century reader to peek into the world of three centuries ago. It lays bare the deep-rooted prejudices of a prior era. It goes without saying that the one aspect was the colour difference. Yet for all that, it was far more profound than that. It encompassed the whole societal structure conflated with an ill-judged version of honour.
In the 21st century world, it defies belief that women in this era were deemed to exist on a social strata below men. Most women in that era received little or no education and in Maria’s case it was none.
A striking feature of Maria’s upbringing was the amount of dislocation, unsettling domestic environment and tragedy that she endured. Her parents fled religious persecution in Flanders by settling in Middelburg, Zeeland. To escape future trauma, some of these French Huguenots emigrated to the Cape Colony. Despite the social mores of the era precluding divorce, her father Jacques (Jacob) Mouton had divorced his first wife. This was an added reason for relocating to the Cape Colony. En route Maria’s mother gave birth to her sister and then shortly thereafter died. Within a few months her father had remarried resulting in a topsy-turvy world of new country, new mother and a new sister.
Here in Cape Town the Moutons met fellow exiles, the Bevenagie. The only land available was territory which the VOC Governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, son of Simon van der Stel, who, at the insistence of the Dutch East India Company – the VOC – had agreed to open for settlement. It was a remote horse-shoe piece of land in the upper Breede Rivier. The Land of Waveren, or so-called Vier en Twintig Rivieren, would be the South African equivalent of the Wild West populated with drosters [fugitives], runaways and marauding Khoikhoi tribes. Making it inaccessible was the fact that the only natural openings in the mountains ringing the west and the south were two formidable passes with a third not suitable for carts and wagons.
In was into this wild frontier that young Maria was moved.
In the Colony at that time, men overwhelmingly outnumbered men. In the case of the free burghers, it was in a ratio to two to one. It was worse in the case of slaves being eight to one. In spite of having the pick of the men, at 16 years of age, Maria married a certain Mr Frans Jooste who was at least 20 years her senior. As marriageable women were in short supply, Maria certainly did not have to marry the first man available. At the time he would have appeared as a mature, hard working free burger with good land and fair prospects. Maria moved into his opstal at the foot of the Elandskloof Pass. It was not far from her parents abode but nonetheless it was an isolated spot.
Running a farm in the eighteenth century was back breaking work which was performed by Frans, Maria and their slaves. Forget one’s visions about the plantations in the deep south of America. Here most farmers owned a meagre number of slaves. In Frans’ case it was two: Titus of Bengal and Fortuijn of Angola.
For some reason Frans Jooste was known in the district as “Schurfde Frans” or “Rough Frans”. Whether this sobriquet referred to his physical appearance, his dress or his manners or all three, it is difficult to say.
For all his faults, Frans was an exceptionally hard worker and excellent provider. For some reason or other after nine years of marriage, there was domestic strife. For the most part this is not unusual especially when survival outweighs factors such as love, romance and the delicate touch. It is difficult to say how badly Frans treated Maria, but after his murder this is what she alleged. Furthermore it was not so much the mistreatment that irked Maria intensely but the fact that throughout their nine years of marriage he had never once bought her any new clothes. Maybe the trial lawyers in Hollywood might entertain that as a valid excuse, but in early eighteenth century frontier society the landdrost of Stellenbosch considered that to be a frivolous reason. What woman requires a new dress after nine years?
Before her so-called fatuous reason is dismissed out of hand, it was not so much the fact that Maria only possessed one nine year old dress but that in a society where rank and status was signified by dress, Maria felt slighted. Under interrogation some of her answers were implausible, contradictory and patently false, but Maria knew what she wanted and she wanted new clothes!
From both Jooste’s sobriquet and his wife’s testimony it is reasonable to conclude that he lacked a certain refinement in his nature which displeased Maria.
It was at this stage in their marriage that Maria had begun a surreptitious adulterous relationship with Titus of Bengal. From their nicknames it is safe to assume that Titus was of Indian or Malay origins whereas Fortuijn was of African origins. In order to assist him, Jooste leased another slave Pieter from a neighbouring farmer, Dirk Bronske. Pieter was not docile like the other slaves. Testimony revealed that Pieter had always been disobedient. One day when Jooste whipped Pieter with a sjambok for being insolent and probably indolent too, Pieter had threatened to retaliate by hitting Jooste in return. Furthermore he intimated that he would return to his owner, Dirk Bronske. True to his word, Pieter absconded.
By this time, Maria had already been indulging in an adulterous relationship with Titus for the past three years or as the court subsequently quaintly records, they “lived in concubinage”. This momentous decision was made when Maria came to the conclusion that she had more in common with the slaves than she did with her considerably older German husband, “Schurfde Frans”. Perhaps due to her naivety, Maria had replied to a scandalised court that as the slaves had been permitted to stay in the house while Frans was alive, she had continued to allow this practice after her death.
It was now that Maria hatched a devious plot. With Pieter having left Frans’ employ under a cloud and the neighbour Bronske well away of the facts, she would approach Pieter to perform the vile deed. Fate came to Maria’s rescue. Pieter was indeed lurking in the area not as Maria would later contend to seek retribution against Frans but to escape from bondage. Frans had then unintentionally discovered Pieter sleeping under a large rock on his farm, known in folk memory as Klipheuwel.
Maria made Pieter an offer which she erroneously believed that he could not refuse. Kill Frans for her and she would make him a free man after three years. Pieter refused. In a fit of pique, Maria exclaimed, “Gaan na die donder”. [Go to hell!].
Being the perfect gentleman that he was, Titus consoled Maria with an offer to kill Frans Jooste himself. The plan was simple like all good plans are. At a convenient moment when Jooste was alone and vulnerable in the wheat fields, he would shoot him. In such a rugged frontier area with runaway slaves, VOC deserters, wild animals aplenty and belligerent Khoikhois, many a farmer had over the years mysteriously vanished never to be found again. That is what the co-conspirators were hoping that the authorities would accept.
On the fateful day, 3 January 1714, the opportunity presented itself unexpectedly. On an unbearably hot afternoon in the Swartland, the couple commenced bickering. That fracas culminated in Frans chasing Maria out of the house with a stick. Titus, who should have been cleaning the threshing floor, was instead nearby observing her predicament. Maria was crying out for help.
Titus, ever the knight in shining armour, dashed inside and grabbed Frans’ musket. He fired. It only wounded Frans who now directed his attention to Titus. It was now Fortuijn’s turn to provide assistance. The young slave picked up a “ploeg stokken”, a plough tail, and smashed it on the back of Jooste’s neck. Probably unsure whether Frans was indeed dead and with his adrenalin pumping, he proceeded to hit him another three times in order to ensure that he was indeed dead.
Jooste was dead.
There was no doubt of that fact to the three co-accused.
At that inconvenient moment, a neighbour, Meneer Isaac Visagie, appeared. Visagie had actually heard the shot but had not actually witnessed the murder. In a frantic panic, Maria ordered the two slaves to drag the lifeless body behind the house while she scuffed sand over the blood pools. Maria’s explanation was plausible. Jooste was alone in the wheat fields and would probably be home shortly. She speculated that the shot could have been for a number of reasons; venison for the pot or drosters on the property.
Accepting her plausible explanation, he volunteered to find Jooste. Having no luck in this endeavour he returned to the opstal. Being a gentleman, he voluntarily elected to stay with Maria until Jooste returned. By midnight Jooste had not reappeared so Visagie left.
In the meantime, Titus and Fortuijn had dragged Jooste’s body to a convenient porcupine lair and stuffed it underground.
The circumstances of Jooste’s disappearance did seem to be suspicious to Visagie but it was the landdrost of Stellenbosch, Nicolaas van den Heuvel, who took the most active role in the investigation. When interrogated by the landdrost, Maria’s explanations were highly plausible. It was during an impromptu visit to Maria’s farm some time later, that the neighbour Jacques Theron would be gripped with grave misgivings. Theron was a fellow Huguenot and inhabitant of the Land of Waveren. What he was confronted with, astounded him. There he discovered Maria entertaining three slave men and two slave women. In the convivial atmosphere akin to a family gathering, they were consuming wine. When confronted with the fact that it was improper for her to treat other people’s slaves to wine, Maria airily answered that they were her guests and as then she added, an afterthought, that it was in any case Saturday!
Even more damning was her familiar relationship with Titus and their scandalous sleeping arrangements. This set the cat among the pigeons.
But what was to finally force the authorities to make a closer inspection, was the recapture of Pieter of Madagascar with his incriminating story. In reality during the interim period prior to his recapture, Pieter had led a band of runaway slaves intent on reaching terra de Natal. First they lured Bloedong out of his house, overpowering him and proceeded to steal seven muskets. Then they ransacked the homestead of Jan Wilders acquiring two hand guns in the process, and finally stealing 90 sheep from the Khoikhoi. After reaching the edge of the semi-desert, Pieter deserted his charges who were in the process of rebelling. Without any options, Pieter of Madagascar wandered back to the Land of Waveren where he was detained.
Prior to Pieter’s initial interrogation on 27 April 1714, the authorities were convinced that Pieter was culpable for the brutal murder of Frans Jooste. Amongst the bluster, obfuscation and patent lies, the realisation dawned on them that perhaps the trio of Maria, Titus and Fortuijn might have played a part in Jooste’s death.
The trio were subject to two separate sets of interrogations, first in May and then it is thought in July. Between the contradictory evidence and falsehoods uttered, a possible hazy outline of the events emerged. Finally on 25th July, Maria admitted that her two slaves had committed the dastardly deed but denied complicity.
Like the classical “good cop, bad cop” pantomime, their captors played all three suspects off against one another. Their final ingenious solution was to incarcerate Pieter in the Castle’s infamous “donker gat” while Titus was placed in the adjacent “voorste gat”. Unbeknownst to the prisoners, a listener was placed close enough to their cells in order to eavesdrop on their conversation. They struck pay dirt. Pieter was overheard urging Titus to be more trusting but what he uttered next was the most incriminating. He appealed to Titus not to “verklikken” [squeal].
The ultimate coup de grace had been overlooked, a five year old boy, Jacobus Jooste, Maria’s eldest son. The landdrost despatched his deputy, Hartwick Hinrich Rickert to sweet talk the boy into disclosing what he had witnessed. Tiny Jacobus had been standing with Fortuijn when the attack commenced. He had ringside seats to his father’s murder.
In spite of this vital missing clue, the Standard Operating Procedure still applied. Both Maria and Titus would have to be subjected to torture. On the 15 August 1714, both were tortured in the eponymous “pijnbank”. Phase two on the 15th August 1714 was the “pijnkamer” or pain room. Both Titus and Maria confessed before this was necessary but Fortuijn was more stubborn. He required a stint in the pijnkamer before he finally relented and confessed.
At last the prosecutors possessed a coherent narrative of events and hence were able to pass prosecute and ultimately to pass sentence. It was death for all four but in the modus operandi on the time, they were most gruesome angonising deaths.
Maria Mouton of Middelburg was bound to a pole, half strangled, scorched (geblaker) and only then in excruciating pain fully strangled to death. Her body was then fastened to a forked post and displayed in public until it disintegrated.
Titus was impaled alive with a stake through his body. Upon death his head and right hand were cut off and fixed on a pole beyond the limits of his late master’s property.
If nothing else, this case highlighted the double standards regarding sexual relations. Whereas white men continued to enjoy adulterous relationships with female slaves, white women were bound to a higher standard: they dare not engage in sexual relations with male slaves.
No doubt the fate of Maria Mouton served as a cautionary tale to other white women in the Colony. Without overtly codifying the accepted customs and norms, women were left to draw all the appropriate conclusions from this case.
Read the first story in Nigel Penn’s other book Rogues, Rebels and Runaways in order to understand what the consequences were for adultery by a white man, Menssink, and this female slave. Just a hint; it reeks of hypocrisy.
Murderers, Miscreants and Mutineers by Nigel Penn
Rogues, Rebels and Runaways by Nigel Penn