What is the project about

The Transcription of Estate Papers at the Cape of Good Hope


TEPC is a joint project of the Universities of the Western Cape and Cape Town with the overall goal of equitable access to significant archival resources associated with the history of the Cape. Beneficiaries are students and local-based research and user groups. The first phase of the project will result in public and internet access (on the TANAP website) to detailed information about Cape families, their households and livelihoods - and the numerous privately-owned slaves. Not only historians of the early Cape and slavery, but also family history researchers, archaeologists, architectural historians, teachers and writers will be reached via the Internet.

The transcription process has been closely associated with a collaborative transfer of skills and capacity building project for interested parties in the public sphere, which has taken the form of workshops running parallel to the archival transcription phase.


Ms Ellen Berends, Netherlands Consul General in Cape Town, initiated the project. A historian herself, she enthusiastically endorsed the proposal and ensured that a budget of almost R2 million was forthcoming. The first phase of the project runs 15 months, from 1 October 2004 to 31 December 2005. Recently, the Netherlands Embassy has granted funds for the second phase.

The documents

If the owner of an estate at the Cape died without a will, or if the children in the estate were under age or overseas, the estate would fall under the jurisdiction of the Orphan Chamber, a department of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Officials from the Orphan Chanber would then compile an inventory of the entire estate to ensure that the deceased accounts were balanced and to ensure fair distribution among the heirs. This usually involved an auction. These records are a window into what people owned, bought, sold and valued, and sometimes help us to trace the history of households and individuals including slaves.

The goal of the TEPC project is to make a complete transcription of these papers of the period between about 1700 and 1850. The records are housed at the National Archives in Roeland Street, Cape Town. They form an exceptionally rich collection of material covering most of the VOC period and the first decades of British rule at the Cape. They comprise:

  • Inventories of assets (from contents of a sailor's kist/box to large properties in town and country, including slaves and livestock), plus credits and debits of the estate. Some lists of possessions are evaluated (inventarissen en taxatie), others are not (inventarissen van boedels). The latter were linked with public auctions.
  • Auction rolls, or vendurollen (lists of assets sold by public auction, including slaves), with record items, buyer's name, and price paid.

The estate records form the single most cohesive record of privately owned slaves at the Cape (and they were the large majority of the slave population). The project thus responds to the growing call for a focus on the documentation of slave history and the identification of slave forbears. In this framework the news about the funding of the TEPC project by the Netherlands Consulate General was released on 1 December 2004 and marked the celebration of 1 December 1838, Slave Emancipation Day in the Cape.

  • Slaves are listed as possessions, with names and toponyms and value - and sometimes also age, occupation and notes on bequests and manumission. These people can be tracked through sequential properties and sales, showing who remained in an extended family and who were sold to outsiders.
  • Sometimes (but not always) slave children are recorded together with their mothers, enabling some slave family reconstitution.
  • 'Freeblack' property owners are included among those whose possessions were inventoried or sold at death.
  • Ex-slave slave-owners are included in the records.
  • In the later period (post-1760s) the possessions of freed slaves and some Khoekhoen are documented.

Initially, the name of the project was Transcription of Estate and Slave Papers at the Cape of Good Hope (TESPC). As in the end, the focus of the project is much broader than the history of slavery, the name of the project has been changed in Transcription of Estate Papers (TEPC). Yet, accessibility to data on slaves will continue to be a main part of the project and the presentation of the results on the TANAP website.

Chief Archivist Ms M George, who retiredJune 2005, welcomed this proposal since the documents are heavily used at the National Archives and are rapidly deteriorating as a result. The records are unique to the Cape archives and, unlike the Council of Policy and Council of Justice records, copies were not sent to the Netherlands.

The documents are currently used for the following purposes:

  • cultural history (museums, period rooms, furniture & fittings, clothing, etc.)
  • architectural history (limited surviving fabric in Cape and only after 1750, few town houses at all)
  • economic history (value of items, wealth, money lenders, commerce & agriculture, movement of goods)
  • social history (occupations, wealth, demography, slavery)
  • slave history
  • archaeology (material culture framework, contemporary values, presence & absence of items, changes chronologically and spatially)
  • family history (tracing estates and owners, links with genealogies and wills; this includes slave and freed slave families)
  • comparison with similar documents in Europe and other VOC colonies and other colonial societies (eg. North American colonies)
  • education (research resource, school material; some have been used for Curriculum 2005 school materials and educational resource booklets on slavery)
  • museum curators and public historians have used the probate archive for reconstruction of house and farm interiors as well as for recording slave ownership (eg Koopmans-de Wet House, Stellenbosch Dorp Museum, Groot Constantia, Vergelegen)

The database

Mr Schalk Liebenberg of Sentrum customizing the computer programme for the project. The project team uses Corel XMetal³, an Extensible Markup Language (XML) Editor. Dr. Pieter Koenders of the national archives of the Netherlands coordinates the storage of the authentic version of the product and the hosting of its dissemination on the TANAP website The data has to be kept in the right digital conditions and Nationaal Archief in The Hague has that capacity. If, at a later stage, the National Archives of SA has the capability for storage, then it will be passed to them. Drs. Hanno de Vries, senior archivist of Nationaal Archief, advises concerning technical issues on the digitization.

Transcription team

The transcription team has been based at the Cape National Archives, and consists of two Editors (Dr Helena Liebenberg and Ms Erika van As) and four Transcribers (Ms Fiona Clayton, Mr Kobus Faasen, Mrs Illona Meyer and Mrs Maureen Rall). 


  Members of the transcription team












The project is in the joint name of UWC and UCT because members of both universities have been involved in the planning of the project, and materials will be used by students from both universities. The project is headed by Prof Nigel Worden, Department of Historical Studies, UCT, and is under the supervision of a project manager, Dr Antonia Malan, Historical Archaeology Research Group, UCT.


The TEPC project includes various workshops. The intentions for these workshops are:

  • to create awareness that these resources are available to the public;
  • to identify potential user groups - teachers, museum educators and curators, historians, genealogists, others ... ;
  • to identify future research areas.

The workshops will be organized and facilitated by Ms Carohn Cornell, who has extensive experience in public education materials development. She will be assisted by student interns who will work with community groups and prepare workshop materials. This will be an important area of capacity development.

Reference group

The estate papers were identified as the most appropriate series for transcription by a NRF-funded UWC-UCT joint research project group ('Castle, Coercion and Control: The Social World of VOC Cape Town'). This group is currently led by Dr Susan Newton-King (History Department UWC), Prof Nigel Worden and Dr Nigel Penn (Historical Studies Department UCT), and Ms Lalou Meltzer (Social History Research, Iziko Museum), and includes almost all active local-based researchers on VOC history (39 members in all).

Contact details

Prof Nigel Worden, Dept of Historical Studies, UCT Phone: +27 (0)21 650 2951

Dr Antonia Malan, Dept of Archaeology, UCT Phone: +27 (0)21 650 2358 

  • Click here for an article on the project in Afrikaans in Die Burger.
  • Click here for an article in English on the website of Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa
  • Click here for information on the heritage of slavery in South Africa.
  • Click here for the Gateway to colonial 'Slavery @ the Cape'.
  • Click here for the TANAP search facility of the Resolutions of the Council of Policy as well as some interesting maps and an extensive introduction to the Resolutions and history of Cape of Good Hope in Afrikaans and English.

Back to Overview Events


Site by Hic et Nunc