A real story of slavery and spirituality in 18th century Cape Town.


On the evening of 14 July 1760, the slave Batjoe van Bali was on duty in the courtyard of his master’s house high up in Table Valley – the Cape Town suburb now known as Gardens. The night would have been cold, possibly rainy and certainly dark. The sounds associated with Table Mountain after dusk were not strange to Batjoe, but unbeknownst to him, a group of silent intruders were closing in on the courtyard. Confronted with a mix of runaway slaves and some who were also owned by his master, Batjoe van Bali was too intimidated to raise the alarm that an attack on the house of Michiel Smuts was imminent.

Michiel Smuts was a 30-year-old accountant working for the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) whose garrison and sole port was situated at the colony on the southernmost tip of the African continent, known as the Cape of Good Hope. The expansion of both rural and urban economies of the Cape led to a consistent need for slaves and a third of them were owned by the VOC itself. Records from 1793 show that 97.2% of the farmers at the Cape owned slaves, a number that is staggering especially considering that the highest proportion of slaveholding families in Mississippi was approximately 50% of the population – even at the height of slavery in the American south.

The majority of these slaves were foreign born taken exclusively from five areas: the Indonesian archipelago, Bengal, South India and Sri Lanka. Within this group of numerous ethnicities, religions and languages, the largest ethnic group of slaves at the Cape were the Bugis people from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.


Bugis in Literature

Perhaps the most famous encounter with the Bugis in literature is found in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, whose fictional island of Patusan is inhabited by a community of Buginese people among whom is Dain Waris – the first of the Patusan people who believed in Jim’s potential for goodness and who became a victim of Jim’s naivety and cowardice. In his description of Dain Waris, the novel’s narrator Marlowe, is complimentary and finds in him characteristics he believes to belong exclusively to Europeans.

It is Dain Waris’ courage, altruism, easy bearing, sense of purpose and clear temperament that Marlowe describes as “familiar” and wholly unexpected. The reader is told, “This was true; he had that sort of courage – the courage in the open, I may say – but he had also a European mind.” Whether this is casual racism by Conrad or a writer’s attempt to expose the dominant thinking is ambiguous and the subject of much contemporary literary scholarship. What is, however, clear from Lord Jim is the image of the Buginese contained in the character of Doramin, the father of Dain Waris and the leader of his people. He is dignified, deeply trusted as chief, but ultimately dangerous.

This characterization certainly mirrors the attitude of the VOC who in 1767, banned the importation of South-East Asian slaves in a decree that specifically mentioned the Bugis as the most dangerous. The men were described as “violent and barbarous”, “capricious and vindictive” and “revengeful”. The women were seductresses, the best lovers but who were not be trusted as they performed magic on the men with whom they had sexual relations.

This kind of stereotyping traveled much farther than the Cape, and historian Robert Ross argues that the origin of the word “boogey” (as in boogeyman) comes from the ethnonym “Bugis”. The Oxford English Dictionary provides an early citation referring to “Malay pirates… those bogies of the archipelago”.


The Bugis Threat; Politics and Islam

But racist stereotyping and rumours of black magic are only a part of the reason for the fearsome reputation of the Buginese. The reality was that the Bugis people had among them at least two men who posed a very real political threat to the VOC government. The first was Leander van Bugis who, in 1725, established the largest and longest lasting community of runaway slaves (also known as drosters) in the history of the Cape colony. Slaves were often named after the month in which they arrived at the Cape or characters from ancient mythology, and Leander became the leader of around fifty drosters in Hangklip, near False Bay.

However, it was not a growing number of runaway slaves that posed a threat to the authorities. Leander had nearly succeeded in setting Cape Town on fire in 1736, by committing arson in the tannery across the vegetable gardens of the VOC – today known simply as the Company’s Garden. At least two other fires were caused by arson around the same time, as well as an attempt by one of Leander’s drosters to poison the water supply in the city. Leander was never caught, but official records state that he may have been shot by one of the commandos sent by the Council of Policy who urgently needed to suppress the resistance.

The story of Leander van Bugis sent shockwaves to the colonizers and slaves alike, and some of the Hangklip community survived until the abolition of slavery, with some historians believing them to be the core of what would later become the coloured fishing communities of the Cape Peninsula.

The second threat came from the increased religiosity of the slaves and the grip that Islam was beginning to take in the Cape. A slave named Jan van Bugis was recorded as being sold to Matthias Greeff for 50 rixdollars and arrived at the Cape at 24 years of age. It is likely that Jan, also known by the name “Asnoun”, was educated and like other slaves, had belonged to the aristocracy of the Indonesian archipelago.

A young Muslim free woman named Salia van Macassar recognized qualities in Jan that drove her to earn and collect money in order to buy him his freedom. Following their marriage by Islamic rites, Jan began studying under the tutelage of the Imam Abdullah Kadi Abdus Salaam – better known as Tuan Guru. Jan did not succeed Tuan Guru as the imam of the Auwal mosque in Dorp Street, but founded the city’s second mosque – the Palm Tree Mosque situated at 185 Long Street and currently still frequented by Muslim worshippers. In addition to being an imam, Jan van Bugis became an important inspiration and teacher for the growing Muslim community and a pioneer of Islam at the Cape, collecting vast sums of money in order to buy other Muslim slaves and free them.

To the authorities, it was exactly this kind of subversive behavior and “reputation of rebellion” that convinced them of the centrality of two Buginese men in the aftermath of the murder of Michiel Smuts on that cold winter’s night in 1760. Six months before the murder, a group of drosters gathered on Table Mountain under the leadership of Fortuin van Bugis, who was on the run after being sentenced to death for injuring his master, Cornelis Verway. The group had decided to flee first to Hangklip, but ultimately wanted to escape to the independent Xhosa kingdoms near the Eastern frontier. The prospect of leaving the Cape and the White men who were the architects of their misery must have been thrilling for this group of drosters, but Fortuin was a practical man and knew that to survive they would need guns.

Achilles van Sumatra (sometimes referred to in records as ‘Alexander’) was owned by Smuts, who was an influential man at the Cape, having worked for its civil administration before becoming a leading official and accountant for the VOC. Smuts had punished Achilles for failing to sell vegetables at the market in the city center – a punishment so severe that Achilles took the great risk of running away. During this time, he lived in Hout Bay and came into contact with Fortuin. Achilles’s freedom was short-lived for he was soon captured, returned to his master and punished once more. Achilles then sent word to Fortuin that he could procure guns for Fortuin’s gang – on condition that they help him murder Smuts.

When the men broke into the house, Smuts and his wife Susanna de Cock were in the sitting room of their opulent house which contained numerous gold and silver ornaments as well as over twenty paintings. The slaves killed them both as well as their eldest son who had awoken sometime during the attack. The slaves then left the Smuts residence with three flintlock guns, jewelry, silver cutlery, as well as some food and clothes.

The murders sent the VOC government into a panic and because they could not estimate or contain the danger the slaves posed, their best course of action would be to cut off all communication between the murderers and other slaves – lest a full scale rebellion was enacted. Guards were placed on the only road up the mountain and an edict was issued that forbade a slave from going up the mountain unless they produced a pass from their master and showed it to the guard – something of a foreshadowing of later apartheid policy.

Such measures were likely successful, as the group had already left their hideaway on Table Mountain and were headed for the Blouberg dunes. The group of thirteen drosters, seven of whom were Bugis, was reduced to eleven, when they were intercepted by a commando of soldiers near Blouberg. The remaining men then headed towards the farm Plattekloof – a farm that was crucial to VOC communications, as it housed a cannon which was used to relay signals from Cape Town to Stellenbosch and the Swartland (modern day Mitchell’s Plain).


September Van Bugis

One of the slaves on Plattekloof was a 50-year-old man named September van Bugis. Known as a wise man and a healer, September left food for the drosters and saw to a slave whose hand had been shot during the pursuit by the commando. September healed the man’s hand by treating the wound with saliva and then binding it. This kind of technique was not unknown to those who sought September’s help. He was referred to as a practitioner of mujarrabat or tested spiritual remedies. Indeed, September was also called a “doctor of advice” and willing to listen to the sufferings that other slaves endured. He was literate and described by another slave, Gedult of the Cape, as having the habit of sitting on his bed and writing. The only surviving slave-authored letter from the Cape colony is one addressed to September, written in Buginese by a slave named Upas.


“This letter comes as a message from Stellenbosch, you sent me. Brother September, I announce that I have been sick for two months and that no human medicine can cure me. Brother September, I seek encouragement from you because I know you care about our Buginese people. I request from you brother, if you have compassion, actually for your Buginese race because I know from the time we spoke with our fellow Buginese people, you said we were suffering and that this concerned you, for we are a broken, suffering people in miserable conditions. And I just mention my illness, our fellow human beings make me suffer. Thus my request to you, Brother September, if you are compassionate for your suffering Buginese compatriots, will you lead the children who came from this place?”


From this letter, Shaykh Seraj Hendricks – a contemporary scholar of Islam and an authority on the history of Sufism at the Cape who sadly passed away on 9 July 2020 – said that the status of September as a leader, spiritual guide and healer is evident. The late historian Achmat Davids in his unpublished manuscript Slaves, Sheikhs, Sultans and Saints makes a convincing argument that the man known as September van Bugis is in fact the mysterious saint buried on Devil’s Peak, known to his followers as Shaykh Abdal Qadir.

The tariqa (Sufi order) of Shaykh Abdal Qadir is not known, unlike many of the other men who have kramats (shrines) around Cape Town. It has been well documented and established, for example, that Shaykh Hasan Gabie Shah of Signal Hill was Qadiri, Mawlana Abd al Latif buried at the Habibia Mosque was Chisti and Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar was Ba’Alawi. The assertion that September van Bugis and Shaykh Abdal Qadir is the same man is more than likely accurate, and it should be noted that Davids’ research remains unmatched and the foundation of all subsequent studies into early Muslims at the Cape.

Fortuin, Achilles and the remaining men did not stay at Plattekloof farm for long and left for Hangklip after twelve days. On their way, they stopped some slave woodcutters and demanded food, an act that would ultimately lead to their demise. A slave by the name of Boone, alerted the authorities of the whereabouts of the group and a commando was swiftly sent to apprehend the men. For his information, Boone was granted his freedom and his master was paid 250 rixdollars. Every man was killed – with the exception of Achilles, who was then arrested along with a slave named January. September was also captured at his residence on Plattekloof farm. The execution of the others seemed a fitting punishment for murder, but the remaining three men were suspected of something far greater – a conspiracy against the colonial government.

The authorities raided September’s quarters and found the Stellenbosch letter in his personal chest. It was their discovery of September’s literacy that sealed his fate. September was neither a party to the murder of the Smuts family, nor a runaway slave, but in the eyes of the government he posed a grave threat. Literacy among slaves meant that communications would be far easier through a network of secret letters in the event of a coordinated uprising.

September was taken to the Castle of Good Hope and interrogated mercilessly. He was asked to name the author of the letter, he was asked to provide more information about drosters and he was accused of organizing a slave rebellion. Given the information known about September, it was unlikely that he would have initiated organized resistance and any plot by the slaves at that stage would have merely involved a plan to escape into the protection of the Xhosa. In any event, September refused to reveal the identity of Upas, the slave who had written to him and he also gave no information about the other runaways he was known to have given food and shelter to.

Achilles van Sumatra was first sentenced to being mutilated by red hot pincers on eight different parts of his body before being broken on the wheel. January van Bugis, too was sentenced to death on the wheel. September van Bugis was tied to a cross and broken alive from the bottom up without the possibility of a coup de grace or death blow to end his suffering. Davids and others document that September uttered not a single cry of pain and the only words that escaped him was the shahadatan, or Islamic declaration of faith in Arabic – There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.

Despite the initial panic and suspicion surrounding him, September van Bugis all but disappeared from collective memory and the history books – which must be said were not too concerned about the history of slavery at the Cape, until relatively recently. Even when I was at school in the mid-2000s, our history lessons were replete with the narrative that slavery in South Africa was mostly “benign” based on the fact that the Cape was not yet a capitalist economy and was instead still agrarian.

The letter to September was of interest for the first time only in 1930 when an article by Professor JLM Franken in Huisgenoot magazine concerning slave languages at the Cape, featured an illustration of the Buginese letter. Franken himself was so ignorant of the language, that he published the letter upside down and subsequent copies in other sources are also the wrong way around.

As for those who knew September, they buried him on slopes of Devil’s Peak, today that slope lies directly above Philip Kgosana Drive, the expressway that leads into the city center. The gruesome nature of September’s death, according to Hendricks, may have led to the “air of secrecy and mystery that surrounds the grave”. It is a simple shrine, covered with green satin sheets and except for four simple iron bars around the grave itself, there is no other structure. The late Shaykh and scholar Yusuf Da Costa describes how the grave was known only to a few confidants of September/Shaykh Abdal Qadir. The surrounding hills around the kramat or mazaar are known to be of spiritual significance to a number of different people and Da Costa also notes the belief that Shaykh Abdal Qadir is said to be a promised divine guide according to African folklore.


Visiting September/Shaykh Abdal Qadir in 2020

I recently tried visiting the burial site of the man whose little known life and death is so intimately connected to the history, violence, politics of resistance and religion of life in Cape Town. The shrine is situated next to the shooting range on Philip Kgosana Drive, recently renamed after the man who at age 23, led an estimated 40 000 people from Langa to Parliament across the expressway (then known as De Waal Drive) in a protest of apartheid pass laws, just days after the Sharpeville Massacre. The small parking lot on the bend has the remnants of a green sign reading KRAMAT. A very narrow pathway with rudimentary steps leads up the steep hill, but the path stops quite abruptly and is overgrown – rather dangerous looking to an inexperienced hiker.



Despite not reaching the grave, the knowledge that it is there, a physical reminder of a violent past is part of the inevitable reality of being a Capetownian. It is part of living in a city often at war with itself and a city of extremes – wealth and poverty, joy and misery, passivity and protest. And while these irreconcilable realities are often not clear, conscious or visible, they do constantly reveal themselves.


Fourmillante cité,” wrote Charles Baudelaire “cité pleine de rêves,/Oú le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!” – Ant swarming City, City full of dreams/Where in broad day the specter tugs at your sleeve!


Yet, this corporeality of the past, this tactility of our history to “tug” is not just the returning voice of a menacing ghost threatening to rupture the Mother City. As millions of people drive on the snaking carriageway around the foothills of Table Mountain and unknowingly pass September’s tomb, we too overlook the skyscrapers of modernity, the gentrification of the city, the majesty of the sea and the warmth and resilience of the people who call this city home. We too must, like September van Bugis and countless other Sufis buried all across Cape Town did, acknowledge that as human beings we remain constantly positioned between fear and hope.