Port Elizabeth of Yore: Special Justices Appointed to Oversee Slavery

In 1806, when the second British occupation of the Cape occurred, the English humanitarianism movement which had been stirring the crusade against the slave trade for decades, achieved their greatest victory. 1806 coincided with the passing in the House of Commons of a Bill for the abolition of the slave trade. As a slave-owning colony, the Cape was soon to feel the impulse of the incipient human rights legislation.

Main picture: A certificate from the Slave Registry Office, 1827

This Bill would ultimately culminate twenty-eight years later in 1834 in the passing in the Cape Parliament of the Slave Emancipation Act which provided that all slaves were to be emancipated on the 1st December 1834. Notwithstanding their level of work competence or years’ service, adult slaves still had to undergo a further period of apprenticeship before the effect of the Act could be instituted. This was to last for four years and was intended to prepare the newly emancipated slave to take his place in a free society. In effect it was slavery by another name and form.

Essentially, the Act abolished the domestic authority of the master over his slaves and provided for the appointment of Special Justices who would enjoy an exclusive jurisdiction on all questions affecting masters and their apprentices. It further provided that each Special Justice was to preside over a district where police buildings, including a house of correction, were to be built. Moreover, Police constables were to be appointed to superintend the work of Penal Gangs which were to be composed of apprentices sentenced to hard labour. On two days in each week the Special Justice was to hold sessions for the hearing of such cases as were brought before him, while once in every six months, he was to visit each farm where twenty or more labourers were employed, for the purpose of hearing cases.  The Justices were not merely to act as arbitrators between masters and apprentices, they were vested with a power of summary jurisdiction in numerous cases defined in an Ordinance of January 1835, with the exception only of offences which were liable to the sentence of transportation or capital punishment.

The number of Special Justices appointed was wholly inadequate and at the Cape the deficiency was overcome by the appointment of nine Resident Magistrates and five salaried Justices of the Peace, which was a flagrant contravention of the principle laid down in the Abolition Act, that the new officers should be wholly unconnected with the colonies. One of the appointees who arrived from England in 1835 was Captain Thomas Sherwin who was originally stationed at Uitenhage.    However, because of health reasons, he moved his residence to Port Elizabeth (there was no Special Justice appointed for Port Elizabeth as such). His staff consisted of, inter alia, a clerk and a police sergeant. Henry Watson was his clerk in 1836, followed by Augustus James Johnstone in 1837. In 1835 John Fleetwood was the Sergeant to the Special Justice, followed by Richard Tee who was appointed as from October 1835. This was the first of a number of government appointments Richard was to hold.

On the 25th day of the month of his appointment he was involved in the arrest of Mrs. Pieter Lafras Uys who had been accused of assault by one of her servants. Although Richard carried out his duty tactfully, the arrest gave rise to a lot of ill feeling amongst the Dutch-speaking colonists and was later cited as an example of unjust British policy.

On 15 August 1837 J.P. Zietsman of Uitenhage addressed a memorial to the Lieutenant Governor bringing to his attention the inconvenience experienced by him and other purchasers of apprentices in consequence of the Special Justice residing at Port Elizabeth and not occasionally visiting Uitenhage. His apprentices escaped punishment for many misdemeanors, he said, as it was inconvenient for him to take them all the way to Port Elizabeth to have matters tried by Captain Sherwin. He suggested that it would be a great convenience to the public if the Special Justice could hold a monthly court at Uitenhage. A memorial on the same subject had been received from J.A. Rens during March 1837, but the matter had not been taken any further at that time as Captain Sherwin was then on his way to England. A report dated 20 September 1837 from the Civil Commissioner at Uitenhage showed that the number of apprentices at Uitenhage exceeded that of Port Elizabeth. However, there were many more in the neighbourhood of Port Elizabeth, and as most of the inhabitants of the country areas frequented the Port Elizabeth market, he felt that monthly visits by the Special Justice to Uitenhage would be sufficient.22

The following claims were submitted via the Civil Commissioner’s office at Uitenhage by Richard Tee for horse hire in the performance of his duties as Special Sergeant to the Special Justice:

As the October-November account is the last account for horse hire which has been traced, presumably Richard’s employment as Sergeant and Sherwin’s appointment ended on 30 November 1838 as all slavery was to be abolished as from the following day.

In terms of his contract with the government to supply horses for the conveyance of legal processes, Richard had supplied Thomas Griffin, a constable on the establishment of the Special Justice, with a “good and sound” horse on 23 October 1838 for the purpose of summonsing Mrs. Catherine Basson in the Zwarte Ruggens. However, instead of carrying out his duty, Constable Griffin had been “galloping the horse about the country” for more than twenty days, the result of which was that the horse had died (and the constable had been dismissed on his return on 17 November because of neglect of duty). On 8 December Richard Tee addressed a memorial to the Governor requesting compensation of 100 Rix dollars (£7 10s) for the loss sustained. Though Richard mentioned the “large family” he had to support, his memorial was not sympathetically received. It is clear from comments noted on it that government felt that he was more than adequately remunerated for his services.26

On the 1st December 1838, slavery officially was no more. Notwithstanding that fact, many former slaves were unable to cope with a life based upon free well and as a consequence many elected to remain with their former master. Others might have formally have become free men yet the working relationship that prevailed in that milieu was still deeply founded on the concept of master servant which in practical terms was little better than now outlawed slavery with the former slave being denied most rights now taken for granted as the norm.


A Genealogy of the Tee Family of Norfolk by Brian Tee Senior

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